Utagawa Kunisada

Title: Kamiya Kabei

Artist: Utagawa Kunisada

Date: 19th century

Material: Japanese woodblock print

Dimensions: 35.7 x 24.5 (height cm x width cm)

Location: Madison Art Collection

Accession Number 2018.1.0

Visual Analysis

This Japanese woodblock print was donated to the Madison Art Collection by Charles Alvin Lisanby and cataloged in 2018. The work is titled “Kamiya Kabei” and was created by artist Utagawa Kunisada (歌川国貞), also known as Toyokuni III (三代歌川豊国) (Japanese, 1786-1865), in 1851. The print is believed to be part of a series that shows actors in the play Kanadehon Chûshingura (仮名手本忠臣蔵(かなでほんちゅうしんぐら)市村) (1).

In the foreground, a single man, identified as Kazama Takubei (2), is dressed in a kimono stands in the middle of the composition, his stance is wide, as he looks like he has just drawn his blade from the red, black, and gold sheath at his waist. His hair is colored in blue and his face is painted with a red kabuki makeup that accentuates the actor’s facial features around his eyebrows and eyes which may be to symbolize strength and passion (3). He has taken off the outer layer of his purple chevron kimono accentuated with black around the edges, though the purple is severely faded in this print. He has tucked the outer layer of his kimono around his obi which is secured around his waist but covered by the bunched-up fabric. The inner layer of Takubei’s kimono is decorated with a deep blue pattern with abstracted lighter blue shrimp figures on his back and right sleeve, the inner portion of the inner sleeve being a bright red, matching the inside of the outer kimono and the kabuki makeup on the actor.

Rice papers thrown in the air and flutter around the central figure. It is assumed that this woodblock print is not a single portrait but one of many in a series, the rice papers connecting one frame to another. As courtesans carried rice paper in their kimonos, it may be inferred that a print of a woman accompanies this woodblock print. In the background of the work there is a fence or a building with a red rectangle in the upper left-hand side of the composition. The characters are hard to identify but it may be a hint or clue that connects the print to either a play, an actor, or another print in the series. Underneath Takubei’s purple kimono, in between his feet, there is the identification signature and the seal of the artist and printing company.           

When “Kamiya Kabei” (1851) by Utagawa Kunisada is compared to “Actors Bandô Shûka I as Okaru (R) and Ichikawa Danjûrô VIII as Kazama Takubei (L)” (1851) by Utagawa Kunisada (2) and “Actors Ichikawa Danjûrô VIII as Shikama Takubei (R) and Bandô Shûka I as Okaru (L)” (1851) by Utagawa Kunisada (4) it is seen that the three woodblock prints are depicting the same play Kanadehon Chûshingura as there are the same characters that are being portrayed. Upon further comparison, the red box with characters to the left of the actor in the print “Kamiya Kabei” is too faded to be able to be deciphered whereas the other red boxes filled with characters are decipherable in the other two prints. The artists signature and seal in “Kamiya Kabei” located between the actor’s feet is similar to the signature and seal in “Actors Bandô Shûka I as Okaru (R) and Ichikawa Danjûrô VIII as Kazama Takubei (L)”.

Actors Bandô Shûka I as Okaru (R) and Ichikawa Danjûrô VIII as Kazama Takubei (L) おかる」初代坂東しうか「飾間宅兵衛」八代目市川団十郎 by Utagawa Kunisada (1851, Kaei 4, 2nd month), woodblock print; ink and color on paper, From an album of triptychs (plus one diptych), Vertical ôban diptych; 37.8 x 51.6 cm (14 7/8 x 20 5/16 in.), accession number 2009.4992.11a-b.

Actors Ichikawa Danjûrô VIII as Shikama Takubei (R) and Bandô Shûka I as Okaru (L) 鹿間宅兵衛」八代目市川団十郎「おかる」初代坂東しうか by Utagawa Kunisada (1851, Kaei 4, 2nd month), woodblock print; ink and color on paper, Vertical ôban diptych; 37.8 x 51.6 cm (14 7/8 x 20 5/16 in.), accession number 11.43777a-b.

Historical Context

It is believed that this Japanese woodblock print was created in the middle of the 19th century (1851) in the Edo Period (1615-1868). During this time the Tokugawa shogun ruled over the city of Edo, today’s Tokyo, in a time of relative peace and prosperity as urban life flourished, though much of life was harshly controlled as a feudal society, governed by the descendants of Tokugawa Ieyasu (2). The Tokugawa regime created four classes of society, warriors, farmers, artisans, and merchants (5). Creativity, conservative military leaders and the two lower classes of the Confucian social hierarchy caused a period of creation as artisans and merchants began to accumulate wealth and became important producers and consumers of visual and material culture (6). Though as the merchant and artisan class grew in economic power, they were still socially confined, therefore they found an interest in finding pleasure in entertainment and pleasure quarters.

Collaborative practices between artists created new entertainment seen in the Kabuki theater which became a staple of the urban lifestyle. Kabuki-zu meaning the paintings and prints that depict kabuki scenes and inspired many woodblock prints (7). Kabuki was the most popular form of theater for the townspeople in the early Edo Period. Women were banned from the theater in 1629 by the Tokugawa shogunate, leading men to fulfill women’s roles (Japanese). This ban was due to the flourishment of courtesan’s kabuki which developed the style okuni kabuki, as it was seen as a threat to the public’s morals.

In the relatively peaceful time of the Edo period, stability was encouraged and as a way to control public actions the Tokugawa shogunate set aside areas in all the major cities for brothels, teahouses, and theaters; these were areas where all classes were able to interact, and money and style dominated (5). The exploits of women, actors, and visitors that frequented pleasure districts were celebrated in art forms as subject matter for novellas, paintings, and woodblock prints. Anyone who was able to scrape together extra cash could afford a woodblock print of images created by artists of courtesans, kabuki actors, or famous romantic actors. This was one of the first times that artists were able to respond to and be inspired by the interests and preferences of the general population (5).

During the Edo Period, the genre of ukiyo-e or “pictures of the floating world” in woodblock prints and other mediums flourished, the final phase of a long line of Japanese painting. The middle class in Japan in merchants, craftsmen, and entertainers supported this genre of woodblock prints through their products and programs (6). These works were collaborations between specialized artists and authors, who used subject matter from the “floating” world which was enjoyable aspects of middle-class society during the Edo period (8). The floating world started out by depicting activities in landscape settings with a focus on the current social affairs and fashions that were popular (5). As ukiyo-e became more popular artists shifted into depicting more enjoyable aspects of life like pleasure quarters, theaters, urban street life, and parodies of classic motifs in contemporary settings. Realities of the present life in Edo were often superimposed over classical themes of the past for an emphasis on the mundane and the anecdotal (9).

Materials and Techniques

The technique for creating woodblock prints centers around a relief carving and a conscious application of color. An artist would first draw their image onto washi, a thin paper. They would then glue the washi to a block of wood and using the drawing as a guide the artist would hand carve their drawing into the woodblock (10). After ink is applied to the relief, a paper is placed on top of the woodblock, and a baren (flat tool) would be used to press the ink into the paper for a clean transfer. In order to use multiple colors in the same work, the process would be repeated. Each color or pigment needing its own separate woodblock.             As the printing process became more popular adjustments were made to print in a more precise fashion. A system of placing two cuts on the edge of each block was used as an alignment guide in order to precisely print using numerous blocks on a single sheet of paper (11).

Paper created from the inner bark of mulberry trees was favored because it was sturdy enough to withstand multiple presses against the various woodblocks, as well as being absorbent enough to take to the different inks that were used (10). This process enabled many prints to be created before the carvings had to be replaced.             Artists who worked with woodblock prints favored more flat dimensional depths with the use of strong shapes, bold lines, pops of color, compositional geometry, and unique graphic designs (11). Originally, prints were created in monochrome, therefore obvious lines to create distinguishable designs were embraced as aesthetic features of woodblock printing and emphasized the flat dimensionality of the works.

Original Function

Woodblock prints were used as early as the eighth century in Japan to disseminate texts. In the early seventeenth century designer and painter Tawaraya Sōtatsu (ca.1640) used wood stamps to print designs on silk and paper. Woodblock prints until the eighteenth century were used to reproduce written texts (8).

Towards the middle of the eighteenth-century, new technologies made it possible to print single sheets in a range of different colors. Printmakers who worked in monochrome and painted the colors in by hand or only had a few colors to their disposal transitioned to use the full polychrome painting effect (10). The first prints in polychrome were calendars made for wealthy patrons in Edo.  

Important Ideas

  • “Kamiya Kabei” depicts on the scene from the play Kanadehon Chûshingura by Takeda Izumo II, Miyoshi Shôraku, and Namiki Senryû I. The play was originally written for Bunraku, a puppet theater in 1748, it was so popular that that same year it was adapted for Kabuki and staged the same year in the theatre Ichimura (12).
    1. “The vendetta on which this play is based is an actual incident which took place in 1702 involving the retainers of a Lord Asano. When it was dramatized, the names and details, and even the era were changed because of censorship by the ruling Tokugawa government, which was not portrayed in a favorable light.” (Jean Wilson, April 1998)
  • Kanadehon Chûshingura is made up of eleven acts, when it is staged eight sections are performed in the day and the rest in the evening.
    1. When I searched for Kazama Takubei, Shikama Takubei, and Okaru in the play, the only name that was found was Okaru.
  • Utagawa Kunisada was a Japanese artist who specialized in woodblock prints in the ukiyo-e style. He explored themes as the Kabuki theater, samurai, and sumo wrestling.
  • The visual vocabulary and aesthetic principles between mediums, as well as crossing over between different parts of culture from design, to pop culture, to a romanticized version of the past enabled artists to collaborate with each other across a variety of areas of specializations.

Works Cited

  1. “Utagawa Kunisada: 「飾間宅兵衛」 – Waseda University Theatre Museum.” Ukiyo. Accessed April 24, 2020. https://ukiyo-e.org/image/waseda/100-1145.
  2. Actors Bandô Shûka I as Okaru (R) and Ichikawa Danjûrô VIII as Kazama Takubei (L) – Works – Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Accessed April 29, 2020. https://www.mfa.org/collections/object/actors-bandô-shûka-i-as-okaru-r-and-ichikawa-danjûrô-viii-as-kazama-takubei-l-536183.
  3. “Kabuki Makeup – Kumadori.” artelino. Accessed April 29, 2020. https://www.artelino.com/articles/kabuki-makeup.asp.
  4. Actors Ichikawa Danjûrô VIII as Shikama Takubei (R) and Bandô Shûka I as Okaru (L) – Works – Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Accessed April 29, 2020. https://collections.mfa.org/objects/477758
  5. metmuseum.org. Accessed April 29, 2020. https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/plea/hd_plea.htm.
  6. “A Brief History of the Arts of Japan: the Edo Period (Article).” Khan Academy. Khan Academy. Accessed April 29, 2020. https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/art-asia/art-japan/japanese-art/a/a-brief-history-of-the-arts-of-japan-the-edo-period.
  7. Japanese Architecture and Art Net Users System. 渥美財団. Accessed April 29, 2020. http://www.aisf.or.jp/~jaanus/deta/k/kabuki2.htm.
  8. Department of Asian Art. “Art of the Edo Period (1615-1868).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000 -, https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/edop/hd_edop.htm (October 2003)
  9. Coman, Sonia. “Utagawa Kunisada I, Visiting Komachi, from the Series Modern Beauties as the Seven Komachi (Article).” Khan Academy. Khan Academy. Accessed April 17, 2020. https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/art-asia/art-japan/edo-period/a/utagawa-kunisada-i-visiting-komachi-from-the-series-modern-beauties-as-the-seven-komachi.
  10. Department of Asian Art. “Woodblock Prints in the Ukiyo-e Style.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000-. http://www.metmuseum.org/taoh/hd/ukiy/hd_ukiy.htm (October 2003).
  11. Tattly, and Shovava. “The Unique History and Exquisite Aesthetic of Japan’s Ethereal Woodblock Prints.” My Modern Met, August 2, 2019. https://mymodernmet.com/ukiyo-e-japanese-woodblock-prints/.
  12. KANADEHON CHSHINGURA. Accessed April 18, 2020. http://www.kabuki21.com/kc.php.