Nakamura Konozo as the Boatman Kanagawaya no Gon and Nakajima Wadaemon as "Dried Codfish"
Japan; Edo period, 1794-1795
Nakamura Konozo as the Boatman Kanagawaya no Gon and Nakajima Wadaemon as "Dried Codfish" Bodara no Chozaemon Toshusai Sharaku (active 1794-1795)
Woodblock print: ink, color ,and mica on paper
H. 14 3/4 in.
In 1603 the Tokugawa family gained control of the shogunate (military government) and established a centralized government. This era, which lasted until 1868, is called the Edo period after the name of the city that became the new center of government. (Edo was renamed Tokyo in 1868). The resulting years of peace and economic expansion, coupled with growth of cities and trade, strengthened the merchants and tradesmen, classes at the bottom of a governmentally imposed social order. The vitality of these classes and their new affluence produced a climate in which the arts flourished. This new bourgeoisie had money, knowledge, and leisure. It was in this new urban culture that woodblock prints became an important art form.
History of woodblock prints
Printed illustrations have been known in Japan since the Heian period (794-1185), but it was during the Edo period that the newly prosperous bourgeois, who sought to educate themselves, created an enormous demand for printed books and illustrations.
Woodblock carvers began to produce prints that illustrated and expressed the lives of the newly affluent and their leisure activities. Woodblock prints were mass produced--thousands of copies could be distributed quickly and cheaply.
The Kabuki Theater was (and still is) one of the most popular art forms in Japan. Founded in the early Edo period, it was intended for urban dwellers. All roles are played by men. During the Edo Period, actors were considered as very low in social status and theaters were confined to separate, "pleasure" quarters of the city called the "floating world" (ukiyo), which also consisted of brothels and tea houses. Ukiyo was originally a Buddhist term meaning the impermanence of the human world. But, during the Edo period it took on a new meaning of "floating world" filled with ever-changing pleasures.
The Tokugawa shogunate was intent on imposing order and central authority in Japan. Legislation established rules and regulations governing most aspects of life, including woodblock prints. A system for overseeing the content of prints was instituted, in which censors had to affix a seal to a print to show that it was approved.
How to look at this work
Two men are reacting to each other, possibly talking. Their accented features (eyebrows, eyes, and mouths) and the shapes of their faces emphasize their different physiognomies. The tops of their heads are shaven and their hair is elaborately pulled back into ponytails. Each has a round insignia on the traditional Japanese kimono he wears. These marks identify the actors and their costumes and make-up help identify their roles.
Notice the strong color contrasts against the soft background.
- The signature of the artist--in the upper left-hand corner.
- Who published the print--the mark of a leaf below a mountain identifies the publisher.
- The approximate date of the print--the circular mark is the seal of the censor. This type of print was made during the period 1790-1800.
- A Western collector once owned the print--a mark in the lower right corner.
- This information provides a wealth of information about the context of this print. For example, the censor's mark indicates that the government was concerned with its content. The writing on the print tells us the following:
Kabuki actors were the matinee idols of their day. Prints were made to be sold outside the theaters as souvenirs of each performance and functioned like movie-star posters do today.
How this object was made
Woodblock prints are made by transferring an image carved into the surface of a wooden block to a sheet of paper. The artist makes a design on paper. This is transferred to the woodblock. The surface of the block is cut away leaving a design of raised lines. Ink is applied to this surface and a piece of paper is placed over it and rubbed down. If color is used, a separate block must be carved for each color and each block must be aligned with the others. Usually, it was the publisher who commissioned and distributed the print. The prints were created by a team of highly skilled workers--the artist, the engraver and the printer.