There was an amazing sale of The Actor Bando Mitsugoro II in the Role of Ishii Genzo by Toshusai Sharaku recently at Christie's that I need to highlight. Sharaku only actively produced prints between 1794 and 1795 so they are some of the most rare and difficult Japanese woodblock prints to find. One lucky buyer got this print from Christie's for GBP 56,250.00! The estimated going price was only (ha!) GBP 20,000 - 30,000. That estimate is still quite high for ukiyo-e prints up at auction.
The Actor Bando Mitsugoro II in the Role of Ishii Genzo
Woodblock print with silver mica ground, signed Toshusai Sharaku ga, published by Tsutaya Juzaburo, 1794 (Kansei 6), 5th month
Vertical oban (36 x 24.3 cm.)
Sharaku's subjects of choice are Kabuki actors. This is not at all unusual in woodblock prints so besides being rare what makes Toshusai Sharaku's woodblock prints special? I opened some Asian Pear Sake to go with this discussion but it turns out I didn't like it AT ALL.
Eh ... stuff happens. At least I got a really neat bottle out of it???
Anyway - back to the art! Sharaku's impact on Japanese prints is mostly in style and media. Stylistically they are unique in the cropping and almost exclusive three quarter views of his subject. Sharaku's use of silver mica for the background is what really makes his work different. The contrast between the silver background and large white face of the actor is striking and stands out from other examples. Comparing The Actor Sawamura Sojuro III Holding up a Piece of Brocade by Katsukawa Shunshō (Japanese, 1726–1792) and The Actor Bando Mitsugoro II in the Role of Ishii Genzo demonstrates this point.
The Actor Sawamura Sojuro III Holding up a Piece of Brocade
Katsukawa Shunshō (Japanese, 1726–1792)
Edo period (1615–1868)
Polychrome woodblock print; ink and color on paper
Both pieces depict a solitary Kabuki actor in motion but the similarities stop there. Sharaku's subject is contorted and the focus is on the face and hands. In the Shunshō print we see the actor's full body and stage set. Even though he only shows the head, shoulders and hands of the actor I find the Sharaku print more dynamic. The action in his prints is a result of the close cropping of the face and shoulders. By taking away the background the focal point becomes the jarring motion of the figure lunging forward while drawing his sword. Shunshō', however, creates a gentle, sweeping line from the lower left to upper right by using the entire figure and background. So the cropping and media of Sharaku's prints are innovative and unique.
It is a shame these gorgeous prints were produced for such a short time. I was lucky enough to see his prints 'in person' a billion years ago when I was interning at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston and they are spectacular. I encourage you to check out my gallery for more Sharaku examples. I was surprised to see this print up for auction but not surprised it sold for much more than expected.