Portrait or Landscape?

I had a research leave scheduled for 1993-94 and wanted to spend it at the Harvard Kennedy School. With the reinventing government movement taking off and the Clinton Administration taking office, it seemed like the place to be. I visited Cambridge the spring prior to the leave and it was clear I would be receiving my coveted invitation.

The Auction

Feeling expansive, or perhaps full of myself, I was walking through Harvard Square, and happened to notice Edo Gallery, which sold traditional woodblock prints. I was probably thinking that woodblock prints would complement the Kato silkscreen prints I bought a few years before. The gallery was holding an auction and three nineteenth-century prints by Kunisada caught my eye, and I bid about $650 US for them, equivalent to $1500 Canadian today. And then I forgot about them. About a month later, the gallery called to tell me they were mine. I think there was a bit of buyer’s remorse in my voice, so the salesperson gave me a small discount. I picked them up when I arrived in Cambridge.

Decoding the Prints

The prints form a triplet in the dining room and, as our normal seating arrangement has it, I have my back to them. So today I looked closely. Two are of bijin, or beautiful women, one of Kunisada’s favorite subjects, and the other of a priest.

In the print of one woman, her dark robe and hair at the centre of the print immediately catch the viewer’s attention. Then you notice the pattern on the rest of her dress, another woman and trees in the background, and Mount Fuji in the distance. She is clutching two samurai swords under her robe – for what purpose?

The print of two women suggests a connection between, as they look at one another, have similar hairstyles and robes, and are holding similar boxes. It appears they are sitting at a pavilion and, for balance, the carp banner occupies the upper lefthand quadrant of the painting. What is the bond that they are sharing?

The print of the priest is the most perplexing. It is snowy, and the trees are blanketed and his feet are covered. He is partially sheltered by an umbrella, but his facial expression suggests he is uncomfortable. At the top there is a backdrop that appears to be supported with braces or scaffolding. Perhaps this is a theatrical set. Maybe the lengthy texts in the print explain what is happening.

Portrait or Landscape?

Kunisada, who lived from 1786 to 1865, was extremely prolific and the most popular printmaker of his time. He had two contemporaries, Hokusai (1760 – 1849) and Hiroshige (1797- 1858), who have now become much more famous. Kunisada focused on people – sumo wrestlers, Kabuki actors, and especially women of all ages and stations – geisha, bourgeois, aristocrats. He was well-rewarded for his work, and I imagine him as a gregarious extrovert and a ladies’ man. He mentored Hiroshige, for example drawing attention to Hiroshige’s Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido by publishing his own version of it, which included a bijin in the foreground of each of Hiroshige’s prints.

In the early 1830s Hokusai, then in his seventies, published Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji and Hiroshige published The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido. They both departed from convention by painting landscapes. Their landscapes are not devoid of people, but the scenery dominates. Perhaps their work has been more recognized by posterity than Kunisada’s portraits because landscapes are simpler and more understandable (or relatable, as many would now say).

In portraits, notions of beauty differ from one culture to another and patterns of interaction among people are embedded in a cultural setting that a viewer who is not from the society being depicted may not understand. Still, I appreciate the Kunisada prints I bid for on an impulse and one day hope to have their deeper meaning revealed.

I admire Hokusai because he produced his iconic work late in life and kept on working to the end of his life, always trying to improve his work. He prefaced one of his later series of prints by writing “At seventy-three years I partly understood the structure of animals, birds, insects and fishes, and the life of grasses and plants. And so, at eight-six I shall progress further; at ninety I shall even further penetrate their secret meaning.” Emulating Hokusai, I know something about writing, but I hope to improve.

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