Kunichika was one of the old-style artists of ukiyo-e towards the end of the nineteenth century. During their lifetime, artists like Kunichika, Yoshiiku, Chikanobu or Yoshitoshi had a hard stand against modern photography and Western lithography. In today's art market, Kunichika prints are chronically undervalued. Is it time for a resurgence?
Toyohara Kunichika was born in the Kyobashi district of Tokyo - formerly called Edo. His original name was Yasohachi Oshima. Around the age of eleven or twelve, he became a student of the ukiyo-e master Chikanobu. At the age of thirteen he entered the studio of Kunisada as an apprentice - probably on recommendation by Chikanobu.
The young Yasohachi now received his artist name - Kunichika. It is a combination derived from the names of his two masters - Kunisada and Chikanobu.
Among his early works a portrait of his master from 1863 should be mentioned. It shows Kunisada with a thin face, a long nose and bald head. In 1864, Kunisada died and Kunichika designed two memorial prints - one as a diptych - of the deceased master. This indicates that he must have had acquired some kind of outstanding position at the Kunisada studio.
Kunichika was a rather bohemian artist. He married in 1861 and had one child with his wife - a daughter named Hana. Things are not quite clear. But either he left her or she could not stand him any more. There are narrations that he had some forty companions during his lifetime - legend or truth? Towards his late years he bragged that he had moved 107 times in his life - thus beating the record of Hokusai. All these stories are unverified.
It is more probable that the image of the 'womanizer and man on the move' had a true core but was largely exaggerated and eagerly propagated by himself. He had a certain theatrical talent and loved to show off. There are however several credible stories about his drinking habits and his brothel tours - reported by his fellow artists Kyosai Kawanabe and Kiyochika Kobayashi. Interpreting their stories, Kunichika was probably an alcoholic and a loose guy who could not control his spending habits.
Another of his passions was Kabuki - the Japanese theater. The artist was a regular backstage visitor to Kabuki theaters where he spent hours making sketches of actors. A contemporary of Kunichika Toyohara wrote about him: "Print designing, theater and drinking were his life and for him that was enough."
In the old Japan, it was a common custom for people of higher cultural standard, to write a poem before one's death. Here is what Kunichika wrote:
"Since I am tired of painting portraits of people of this world, I will paint portraits of the King of hell and the devils."
Kunichika is foremost known as a designer of actor prints. Apart from actor prints, he created prints of beautiful women and some designs with historic scenes.
In the years 1865, 1867 and again in 1885 the artist's name appeared on eighth, fifth and fourth place in Tokyo ryuki saikenki. That was a list of the best ukiyo-e artists - or whom the jury considered to be best - published every year by a Tokyo newspaper.
During his lifetime, Kunichika was an esteemed and appreciated artist. However he never received the public attention that his master Kunisada had or that Yoshitoshi could win during the last years of his life. In 1867, one year before the collapse of the Shogunate, he received an official commission by the government to contribute to the 1867 World Exhibition in Paris.
Kunichika Toyohara preferred strong red and dark purple-blue colors. You can find them often as background colors on his prints. They were made of aniline dyes imported in the early Meiji period from Germany. For the Japanese the red color had the meaning of progress and enlightening by the new era of Western progress.
Kunichika prints are usually ranged in the lower price category. For US$100 you can get a print in good condition. They usually do not cost more than US$500. Triptychs and diptychs in good condition are more sought after. If you can get a piece with an interesting subject in good condition for a good price - buy it!
The aniline colors have the advantage of not fading out as some vegetable dyes do. Kunichika prints have usually strong colors. However the early aniline colors have the disadvantage of bleeding out more easily under moist conditions. Before you buy, check the print carefully for running out red colors!
Kunichika prints are ideal objects for beginning collectors. As it does not pay to produce fakes, you cannot become a victim of fraud.
Prices of art objects have always been subject to fads. You as a collector should trust more your own taste and judgment than temporary market fashions or the verdict of art historians. They do change their opinions as fast as a politician when the election campaign is over. So why not collecting prints by Kunichika?
Enjoy this video produced by Toshidama Gallery. It shows prints by Kunichika from the series Ichikawa Danjuro Engei Hyakuban. The video is completed by background sound from a Kabuki Play. It is really funny. I like this video
Amie Reigle Newland, "Time present and time past - Images of a forgotten master - Toyohara Kunichika 1835-1900", Hotei Publishing, Leiden, 1999, ISBN 90-74822-08-11-8.
Author: Dieter Wanczura