I was cleaning out the home of a former UN diplomat who traveled extensively and had recently abandoned one of her homes for reasons unknown to me. Part of my payment was to take anything I wanted (I swear it wasn’t a robbery!), and one thing I hauled home were these awesome old Japanese prints!
Unable to read Japanese, I posted these images on Reddit to find out more about them and this is what I found out:
The artist’s name is Toyohara Kunichika. He was known as an alcoholic womanizer who hated photography and spent much of his time at the theatre. He was unique in being successful during the Edo AND Meiji periods, transitioning from a time when his printing trade was popular into a modern time when photography and Western goods put many printmakers out of business. 3 times he was ranked in Japan as being one of their top 10 artists in 1865, 1867, and 1885. In 1867 he exhibited 10 prints in the 1867 World Exposition in Paris, and had another print in the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. The colors in Kunichika prints is still bright because he used newer chemically manufactured inks, from Germany by most reports. He made some shunga (erotic art) but it’s hard to attribute anything to him due to the typical use of pseudonyms or lack of signatures in that kind of work. He died of poor health and alcoholism at age 65 in 1900. In old Japan, it had been a common custom for people of high cultural standing to write a poem before death. On Kunichika’s grave his poem reads:
“Since I am tired of painting portraits of people of this world, I will paint portraits of the King of hell and the devils.”
This is supposedly the only known photograph of him because he reportedly did not respect photography much despite having worked in his older brother’s photo shop at one time.
The model in all these prints is kabuki actor Onoue Kikugorou V. . Like in olde English times, male actors played female roles in the time of Onoue, which explains alot about those “female” faces. This actor was so famous in his time that one of his plays was the first time an Emperor had gone to see a kabuki performance.
I do not know exactly what it says in the margins yet, or if they are original prints or from a later time, but they are indeed awesome! Hopefully I get them framed before they are destroyed somehow!