The Private Lives of Kabuki Actors Depicted by Kunisada

Natsu no Fuji [Actors out of Costume, Like Fuji in Summer [with no snow].] Text by Tsuryuya Namboku IV & Santo Kyozan.

18 double-page & two full-page woodcuts, all color-printed. 18; 20 folding leaves. Two vols. 8vo, orig. patterned semi-stiff wrappers (a little soiled, minor finger thumbing in lower outer corners throughout each vol.), remains of block-printed title label on first vol., none present on second vol., new stitching. Edo: Moriya Jihe, Postscript to Vol. I: 1828; Colophon & Preface to Vol. II: 1827.

First edition and very rare; WorldCat lists only an incomplete copy in North America (Harvard, lacking the first volume). This finely illustrated work, whose text was written by the prominent author Kyozan Santo (1769/1770-1858), is an important part of a theme and genre of illustration that runs through the Edo period: the depiction of kabuki actors. These prints (and books) served as mementoes of fans’ favorite celebrity actors, much like Hollywood “stills” or photo-stories in the 1930s.

In fact, “more prints depicting actors of the kabuki theatre were produced in Edo than all other subjects combined…Three striking attributes of such works are the stylized rendering of the actors’ faces, the depiction of intense expressions on those faces and, with few exceptions, the representation of each actor as a freestanding figure in a memorable pose. These characteristics accurately reflect the heightened expressiveness achieved by actors on the kabuki stage through the conscious distortion of reality that informs all aspects of kabuki performance.”–Ellis Tinios, Japanese Prints. Ukiyo-e in Edo, 1700-1900 (British Museum: 2010), p. 46.

As part of this genre, there was a fascination amongst theater fans about the private lives of famous kabuki actors, how they looked without makeup, while relaxing behind stage, at a party, or on vacation. The present work is a notable example of this sub-genre. A well-known earlier book having the same theme is Shunsho Katsukawa’s Yakusha natsu no fuji of 1780, illustrated in black and white only.

“In his own time, Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1865) was undoubtedly the most popular and successful print designer in Japan, outdistancing his now more famous contemporaries Hiroshige and Kuniyoshi. Possessed of enormous talent and energy, he was a prolific artist who seems to have been perfectly in tune with his age, reflecting its changing tastes even as he helped to form them.”–Izzard, Kunisada’s World (1993)–(for a thorough description of our book, see p. 28 & no. 48/1 & 2. Throughout his career, one of his specialties was the illustration of kabuki actors and beautifully dressed women. Kunisada’s activity as a book illustrator is less well known and awaits attention.

Volume I begins with preliminary text and a fine illustration of Mt. Fuji in the summertime without any snow, just as the actors are portrayed without makeup. As we progress through the volumes, we see a series of kabuki actors in various states of relaxation. Each actor has a printed label by him with his name. All the actors are extremely fashionably dressed, each with his own icon on the kimono. The rooms in which they are often situated are very luxurious. The color printing is rich and sharp, with delicate coloring of portions of the face, enhancing their contours. A number of the illustrations are enriched by blind-embossing and bokashi. The scenes depict the actors in a wide variety of locations: rehearsing, on a picnic, fishing from a boat, at home, relaxing on the Kamo River in Kyoto, backstage in Osaka, visiting a temple, autographing fans to sell to the adoring public, etc.

Following the illustrations, there is Santo’s explanatory text giving further details and gossip about the actors and their personal lives.

Nice set.

❧ See Hillier, The Art of the Japanese Book, p. 582, who criticizes this book (Hillier was not always right, and his comments were written before Jan van Doesburg and Sebastian Izzard’s “resurrection” of Utagawa’s reputation in the 1990s).

Price: $15,000.00

Item ID: 6485

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