Fine Arts of Asia
Floating World Ukioy-e


Last Master of the Grand Style

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Buncho and Shunsho had already set the precedent for more dramatic emphasis in portraying the Kabuki actor. Toyokuni, at 15, was still a student when Kiyonaga was creating his great series of triptychs and diptychs depicting the young men and women of Edo's demimonde, and at 20 he saw the first bust portraits of actors appear under the signature of Shunsho's two main pupils Shun'ei and Shunko. Endowed with great vigor and ambition, and with a genuine respect for the printmakers working around him in the late 1780's, Toyokuni began producing bijin-ga (pictures of beautiful women) in the manner of Kiyonaga and Utamaro. His prints of this period clearly exhibit the attenuated figures made famous by these masters. It is tempting to speculate, as many writers have, why Toyokuni chose to follow the style of others in his early work. Some have claimed that he had no original talent. I would proffer the view that he was satisfied to follow in order to gain experience. I can imagine few artists in any time or tradition that do not owe a debt to the labors and talents of other artists working in their milieu.

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In 1792, when Toyokuni was continuing to produce portraits of beautiful women of the Yoshiwara and views of their environs, Shunsho died leaving the whole field of actor prints largely unattended. Seventeen ninety-four was a momentous year. The great Sharaku appeared on the scene and, in the space of a year, produced an array of actor prints profoundly different from anything seen before or since. At the end of that year, he disappeared as mysteriously as he had come.

Toyokuni turned his attention to designing actor prints. He formed a fortunate alliance with Izumiya Ichibei, the publisher of many of Utamaro's bust portraits and some of Eishi's finest triptychs. Ichibei published Toyokuni's prints for roughly the next decade, which was the period of the artist's finest work. The famous series Yakusha Butai no Sugata-e (Views of Actors on Stage) which was to be Toyokuni's most extensive production, and which contained many minor masterpieces, was begun in the early months of 1794. One of the most admired designs of this series is a stately figure of Sawamura Sojuro III, who was famous in his day as a tragic actor (sheet number two of a pentaptych, the only one Toyokuni designed). He is shown as a samurai in the guise of a wandering komuso with his straw hat and fan, in the play Keisei Sambon Karakasa which was performed at the Miyako-za in the 7th month of that year. 1. (see illustration 1) Another design from the same series, the center sheet of a triptych, shows the actor Sakata Hangoro III as Fujikawa Mizuemon with a snake, in the play Hanayame Bunroku Soga, performed at the Miyako-za in the spring of 1794. Hangoro, playing the part of the villain in the play, has an obsessed expression on his face, and the snake is indicative of his state of mind. With Hangoro's mask like face, Toyokuni came closer to a psychological portrait than even the great Sharaku. The folds of the actors black garment were printed by burnishing, and the gray ground is overlaid with a soft white mica. (see illustration 2) The virtues of this series have been extolled by many writers including James A. Michener, who said that once this series is finally cataloged, it may number as many as 50 separate subjects.

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© Merlin C. Dailey 2003