Kunisada: Bold Master of Japanese Prints
April 2 – June 19, 2005
The artist Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1865) was a member of the Utagawa school, famous for its theatrical portrait prints. Kunisada was born in the vicinity of Edo (modern Tokyo) and studied with the artist Toyokuni, but surpassed that artist as he became the most celebrated print designer of the 19th century. Though he produced some landscapes, Kunisada was best known for his prints of actors (yakusha-e) and beautiful women (bijin-ga).
Kunisada became one of the primary illustrators of popular fiction and developed close ties with prominent literary figures. His first famous series of prints (1828-42) illustrated a whimsical adaptation of the famous 11th-century Genji Monogatori by Murasaki Shikibu, a text he continued to illustrate throughout his career. In a Genji print, the hero wears modern dress, while the composition maintains the centuries-old Japanese love for strong diagonals to create dynamic compositions. The robes of both Genji, who kneel to place a letter in a palanquin, and the ladies around him, are boldly patterned and darkly colored, in keeping with the rich, dark tones of the landscape. Because early Western scholars did not appreciate Kunisada's color sense, they dismissed him, and it is only in recent years that his work has once again been appreciated.
A prolific artist, Kunisada's studio issued at least 20,000 designs, many of which were printed in the thousands. Kunisada's family's ferry boat business afforded him an independent income and allowed access to business men and the theatrical world. While many of his illustrations of actors are as bold as that of the Genji print shown here, others reflect a delicacy in pattern and color and in his ability to convey the emotional content of a scene.
In the 19th century, Kabuki actors were well-known to the public and did not require identification. In response to Hiroshige's popular Tokaido set of the 1830s, Kunisada developed his own Fifty-three Stations of the Eastern Sea Road. He adapted Hiroshige's landscape scenes, but inserted a large figure in the foreground, a format that became extremely popular in the 1850s. In figure to the left, the actor Fujisawa dwarfs the landscape behind.
The prints included in this exhibition belong to the Crocker Art Museum, and most are recent gifts of Chris Daubert and an anonymous donor.