Portraits in Series in Japanese Prints

Both Sides of the Leaf, Past and Present. 1855
Kunisada, Both Sides of the Leaf, Past and Present, 1855

Anyone starting out collecting Japanese prints will be struck by the prevalence of enigmatic portraits, three-quarter length images of actors, usually in role and set against either a landscape background or a flat or modulated monochrome. Sometimes, as in the print of Hamaji below, the background is enlivened by the introduction of another, symbolic element such as the sad, descending cuckoo. The prints are layered images, the actor sits as a separate layer to the landscape. Above the figure, there is usually a further sandwich of richly decorated cartouches, palimpsest images which contain an explicatory text and often an assemblage of related images… still lifes, glimpses of further landscape or buildings… the props of the interior life of the character or the play. A further visual layer are the numerous smaller cartouches of yellow, white or red rectangles that usually contain textual information; the artist’s signature, the name of the actor, the name of the block carver or the publisher, enigmatic censor or date seals… figures and cyphers, some of which are lost to us forever.

Kunisada II Hamaji, Eight Dog Heroes. (1852)
Kunisada II, Hamaji, from the series Eight Dog Heroes, 1852

I always think it’s worth pausing and holding the print or looking at it online and trying to take in the language of the print… I don’t mean the kanji and so on; I think it’s important to try and see the complexity that sits within the margins. Here there are complex relationships between worlds and between types of language. For example, the double portrait of father and son actors Iwai Hanshiro V and Iwai Hanshiro VII from the series Both Sides of the Leaf, Past and Present from 1855 (pictured top). This beautiful print by Kunisada shows the younger actor looking up in admiration at his mentor and revered father. They are each playing female roles, (as was habitual in kabuki) and each of those roles is that of a tragic female who in real life had been one half of a double suicide with a tragic lover. The two dramas, Sonezaki Shinjû  and Osono Rokusa were both based on real events occurring at the end of the 18th century, the the former being the first kabuki play based on real events in the lives of commoners… Edoists, rather than aristocrats or heroes.

Kunisada. Past and Present, Both Sides of the Leaf. 1855
Kunisada, Bando Shuka I as Banzui Otoki From the Series Past and Present, Both Sides of the Leaf, 1855

The print is from a series of a dozen or so prints that pairs actors from the same family, or sometimes line (actor dynasties and names of actors were confusingly not necessarily blood lines) with matching roles. Each of these double portraits is set against a floral background, the symbolism of which helps to add a further layer of pathos to the design. The print is packed with visual information and a rich, decorative surface comprising the ornate patterns of embroidered kimono, layered one upon another, the enigmatic and stylised cloud that takes care of the awkward middle ground from which springs the irises… themselves weirdly scaled – something that one doesn’t notice at first – these are giant irises! So what are they, within the rules of the picture? Do the flowers exist in real space… are they in actual fact looming up behind the figure of Iwai Hanshiro V, or are they a screen, a painted backdrop? More likely they exist in a symbolic spatial relationship to the main figure in the way that the smaller portrait of the father hovers in a tondo in the top right. All of which tells us that as realistic as the drawing suggests, we are looking at a code… a set of signs and symbols; stand-ins for the double portrait. The print builds a complicated story of two actors, two tragic couples, two pairs of dramatic personae, and two plays. The tragedy is heightened when we learn that the younger actor, the son, predeceased his father a full ten years before this print was made.

Kunichika The Mirror of Backstage in Full Bloom
Kunichika. The Mirror of Backstage in Full Bloom, 1865.

As the print is so layered, so we become aware of the layering of life and the presence of death in life. We become aware of a series of linked tragedies that stretch back in time from the 1703 (real events that inspired the plot of Sonezaki Shinjû) and 1749 (likewise for Osono Rokusa) and the fictionalised accounts of their lives in the plays and the tragedies of the actor family that inspired the print. This complex and brilliant interplay becomes very clear when we introduce the title of the whole series,  Past and Present, Both Sides of the Leaf (Konjaku konote gashiwa).

The questionable translation, ‘both sides of the leaf’ fits well. The leaves are evident in all of the prints and there is that symbol common to both languages of a single leaf having two sides – evoking the pairing of similar plays, similar tragedies and related actors.

Hokusai. Irises and Grasshopper
Hokusai, Irises and Grasshopper, 1833

The Irises themselves have a sound pedigree, appearing almost identically in this form in Katsushika Hokusai’s Irises and Grasshopper of 1833 – a print Kunisada would have certainly been familiar with. The Irises would reappear in Hiroshige’s 100 Famous Views of Edo in 1857 and make landfall in Europe in van Gogh’s version of 1889… flowers would never be the same again!

Hiroshige’s 100 Famous Views of Edo.

The interesting question is how did this very complex pictorial language develop? The answer to that lies in the parallel development of kabuki theatre and the curious eruption in the popularity of woodblock prints at the end of the eighteenth century. Kabuki came to embody the will of the people. The city of Edo became not only the most populous but also the densest city on the planet at around this time. The government was paranoid, unelected and weakening. The class structure was medieval and on its last legs and the populace wanted change, recognition really of the changing value of the middle class. Revolution followed in 1864/1868, achieving just that and these prints are a vital part of that process. They do not rally the people in the way that Bolshevik propaganda did a century later… but frankly in their own way they are not far off. Because embedded in this apparently simple print is a meaning and an expression considered so dangerous that the artist, the publisher, the actor and the printer were all, in the early 1840’s under threat of persecution from a series of harsh laws that temporarily closed the theatres, imprisoned artists and actors and and bankrupted the theatres.

Kunichika. Ningen Banji Kane no Yo no Naka
Kunichika, Ichikawa Danjuro IX in the Play Ningen Banji Kane no Yo no Naka, 1879

The response of the artists was to create an embedded language, one that was hidden in plain sight. Hence we find these long print series from the 1840’s and beyond with stirring titles such as: Products of Land and Sea; or 24 Paragons of Filial Piety; or Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove. Titles and designs were conceived that would slip past the censor, prints that obeyed the letter of the law but contained within them a hidden noisome complaint, or else an entertaining portrait of an unnamed, albeit well known actor. The language developed a subtle sophistication and there was really a near decade long game of cat and mouse between the artists and the censors which led to the complicated visual code we know from these portrait prints. The genre became know as mitate, or ‘look and compare pictures’.

Kunichika. 36 Views of the Eastern Capital, Yoshiwara
Kunichika, Onoe Kikugoro in 36 Views of the Eastern Capital, Yoshiwara, 1863

It’s not an overt rebellion, but in this print, say, is the representation of the ordinary citizen. In the thwarted love affairs and the tragic deaths of these four young people are embodied the pointless waste of life that a cruel system of inflexible governance and out dated customs allows to happen. The government rightly feared the mob… the  unrestrained emotion that found expression in popular tragedy and the kabuki plays that detailed the recognisable failures of duty and oppression. The more that the authorities pressed an outdated moral code on a restive people, the more the people resisted. Revolution… albeit fairly un-bloody, was inevitable. These prints then in their complex, coded language are a small silent witness to strength of opposition, they are a dignified and exquisite moment of quiet rebellion, and they remain sadly, for the most part unseen.

Kunichika. Kawarasaki Gonnosuke VII in the role of Jiraiya. 1863
Kunichika, Kawarasaki Gonnosuke VII in the role of Jiraiya, 1863

About toshidama

Toshidama Gallery sells original nineteenth century Japanese woodblock prints. We source our prints from around the world and only stock original, authenticated works of museum quality.
This entry was posted in Hiroshige, Hokusai, Japanese Art, Japanese prints, japanese woodblock prints, kabuki theatre, Kunichika, Kunisada, ukiyo-e and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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