Katsukawa Shun'ei / An Actor, Probably Arashi Ryuzo / Edo period, late 18th-early 19th centuryKatsukawa Shun'ei
An Actor, Probably Arashi Ryuzo
Edo period, late 18th-early 19th century

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Creator Name: Katsukawa, Shun'ei
Creator Nationality: Asian; Far East Asian; Japanese
Creator Dates/Places: 1762-1819
Creator Name-CRT: Katsukawa Shun'ei
Title: An Actor, Probably Arashi Ryuzo
View: Full View
Creation Start Date: 1767
Creation End Date: 1833
Creation Date: Edo period, late 18th-early 19th century
Creation Place: Japan
Object Type: Paintings
Materials and Techniques: Ink and color on paper
Parts and Pieces: woodblock print
Dimensions: 14 1/2 x 9 1/2 in. (36.8 x 24.1 cm)
AMICA Contributor: Asia Society
Owner Location: New York, New York, USA
ID Number: 1979.221
Credit Line: Asia Society: The Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection
Rights: http://www.asiasociety.org
Context: The technique of printing with blocks of wood has a long history in Japan. From the 8th through 16th centuries, it was primarily used for the mass production of Buddhist texts and icons. By the mid-17th century, books and single-sheet prints, often featuring scenes of city life based on contemporary literature, were produced to satisfy the demand of a growing and wealthy urban class for arts that reflected their interests and activities. Teahouses, brothels, and puppet and Kabuki theaters--clustered together on the outskirts of Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka--constituted their primary amusements, and these townsmen celebrated a life style free from the constraints of daily life as well as those inherent in the rigid government-dictated social structure of the times. These establishments and the actors, courtesans, and writers who inhabited them set the trends for metropolitan fashions in literature, art, and clothing. The entertainment districts, their art and their fashions, constituted the ukiyo or "floating world," and thus woodblock prints (and paintings) depicting the localities, activities, and denizens of this world are known as ukiyo-e, or "pictures of the floating world."

Innovative compositions, an interest in psychological states, anda fascinating interplay of social commentary, satire, and caricature are characteristic features of these images, evident in the large number of prints produced in the "big head picture" or okubi-e format during this period. Concentrating on the faces and upper bodies of their subjects, "big head" prints present well-known actors and courtesans (as well as anonymous subjects) in an arresting and intimate fashion. The okubi-e style is exemplified in this print, entitled An Actor, ProbablyArashi Ryuzo, by Katsukawa Shun'ei (1762-1819), one of the two artists credited with the creation of the "big head" composition. The other artist credited with this development is Katsukawa Shuncho (active 1780-1795), and it is interesting that both artists were members of the Katsukawa tradition of printmaking. Shun'ei, who is noted for his actor prints, was a man of diverse interests and also a noted musician. His family name was Isoda; he took the surname Katsukawa from his teacher Katsukawa Shunsho (1726-1792), who was also one of the most influential printmakers in the city of Edo in the closing decades of the 18th century.

This print shows a balding actor with one arm bared and extended in a preemptory fashion. The figure has been identified as Arashi Ryuzo on the basis of a print of Ryuzo by the famed artist Toshusai Sharaku in which the actor is depicted in the same fashion. Sharaku's print represents Ryuzo in his role as the moneylender Ishibe Kinkichi in the play Hana-ayame BunrokuSoga, a tale of revenge taken by three sons for the murder of their father, and it seems likely that the unsympathetic character in Shun'ei's print represents the same actor in the same role.

The small seal beneath Shun'ei's signature reads kiwame, "inspection concluded." It was the first censor's seal to be used on Japanese woodblock prints. The imposition of official censorship and the insistence that the design of every print be government-approved was one of the many ways in which the Tokugawa regime sought to control the life styles and the increasing economic and political clout of the urban class.

Related Document Description: Asia Society. Handbook of the Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection. New York: Asia Society, [1981], p. 99.
AMICA ID: ASIA.1979.221
AMICA Library Year: 1998
Media Metadata Rights: Copyright, Asia Society

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