Woodblock Print Sharaku
Japanese woodblock print – a Kabuki actor portrait by Toshusai Sharaku
Japanese woodblock print by Toshusai Sharaku, portraying the actor Ichikawa Ebizō IV as Takemura Sadanojō in the play ‘Koinyōbō Somewake Tazuna’.
Artist: Toshusai Sharaku (active 1794 –1795)
Publisher: Tsuta-ya Juzaburo
Publication date: This design is from the first series of actor prints by Sharaku, originally published in 1794. The print offered here is from a later edition, published in Japan using traditional woodblock printing methods on re-carved plates, most likely dating from the early 20th century.
Stamps and Markings: The main vertical group along the left side of the print consists of:
• the signature of the artist Toshusai Sharaku
• the seal of approval (kiwame) from the censor
• the seal of the publisher Tsuta-ya Juzaburo
Below and to the left of the main group, but standing on its own, there is a smaller marking that is shaped (more or less) like a stylized clover or fleur de lys. This is most likely the trademark of the publisher who printed this edition. (I have seen this mark once before, on a different impression of this same print, but have not been able to attribute it).
Printed on fine rice paper. The left and right edges of the paper are folded to the back, just along / outside the printed image area (the left side has a 1.8 cm margin, the right side has a 0.5 cm margin. The right side margin (on the part that is folded back and not visible) has an annotation in pencil with a number (3419?) and some text.
Attached to its mounting board by 2 rice paper hinges at the top (so the back side of the print can be viewed / accessed if taken out of the frame), and finished in an off-white book-mounted passepartout. All acid-free. Presented in a narrow black-lacquered metal frame, and protected under museum glass (> 70% UV protection, and non-reflective).
This portrait, one of Sharaku’s most famous works, is arguably the best and most expressive of all of his designs. Originals from the 1794 printing are extraordinarily rare and command fantastic sums at auction. In June 2010, Sotheby’s Paris sold one such original of this design in its second state for 336,750 Euros. Rare.
Condition: Bright, sharp and clear impression. Good colors. The background / sky is created with marbled silver mica paint over a tan ground (provides a nice subtle reflective effect). Paper in excellent condition – no tears, no repairs, only the very slightest signs of some wrinkling.
The Subject and Story: The subject of the print is the character Takemura Sadanoshin, a samurai of great integrity, who works in the service of the lord of the Tanba Province. Sadanoshin’s daughter Shigenoi is also in service to this lord, as a lady in waiting. As the story unfolds, Sadanoshin learns that his daughter has been involved in an illicit love affair with a young retainer also in service of the lord, and has just given birth to their child. Such a scandalous affair would bring disgrace to the families of those involved and was typically punishable by exile or death. Realizing there was only one honorable course of action, Sadanoshin prepares to take his life by committing seppuki (suicide by disembowelment).
It is this moment that has been so brilliantly captured in this print. A moment of supreme anguish and insufferable moral conflict, as Sadanoshin realizes that everything he has worked to achieve in a life of careful respect of tradition, honor, family, and duty – would now end in disgrace and shame.
There are two focal points of the portrait: Sadanoshin’s eyes, ‘…which peer out of a face devastated by the pain of his fatal dilemma’; and his hands, which, clenched in tension as they are at his belly, alludes to the physical act he will shortly commit.
The Artist: Toshusai Sharaku is widely considered to be one of the great masters of the Japanese woodblock print. He was also one of the most fascinating and enigmatic. There is no record of this artist prior to the publication of his first actor series of prints in 1794, he seemed to hit the scene as a fully formed master of his craft, and was only active for a very brief period of about 10 months – he seems to have vanished after March 1795. In addition, his work was printed by one of the most important publishers at the time.
He only produced about 140 designs in total, almost all of Kabuki actors, and worked exclusively with one publisher. Needless to say, the mystery surrounding this artist has led to a high degree of speculation – who was he, where did he come from, how did he get trained, why did he vanish etc. To point – we don’t even know his birth and death dates.
Sharaku’s first works are considered his finest, both in their artistic value and in their technical perfection as Ukiyo-e compositions. His style was bold and shocking at the time - rather than portraying actors in a superficial or idealized fashion, as was the custom, Sharaku created works of profound psychological expression, works that combined the actor, character, and pivotal moment in the story to create a level of realism that was previously not found in actor prints. Because of this, Sharaku is viewed as the first ‘modern’ artist of Japan. His work represents portraiture at its finest.
• ‘Ukiyo-e – 250 Years of Japanese Art’ by Roni Neuer and Herbert Libertson, 1978. Page 247
• Metropolitan Museum of New York research and catalog database
• New World Encyclopedia
Image: Height: 40.35 cm; Width: 24.8 cm
Sheet: Height: 40.35 cm; Width: 27.1 cm
Matt / Passepartout: Height: 50 cm,; Width: 35 cm
Frame: Height: 51.3 cm; Width: 36.3 cm