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Archive: Shibakuni (芝國)

View of Nakamura Matsue III at the backstage entrance (Nakamura Matsue gakuya iri no zu)
Shibakuni ga (芝国画)
No artist seal
No publisher's seal; Seal after poem mostly illegible but may read 'Nakamura Sankô' (中村三光)
(H x W)
Ôban nishiki-e
37.6 x 25.8 cm
Very good color and condition (thick paper unbacked; paper thinning, pigment discoloration and a tiny trail of filled wormage along left edge)
Price (USD/¥):

Inquiry: SHB06


Nakamura Matsue III (三代目中村松江 1786-1855), later called Nakamura Tomijûrô II (二代目中村富十郎), was a premier onnagata (lit., "woman's manner": 女方 or 女形), a male actor specializing in female kabuki roles. Matsue was a flamboyant personality who favored extravagant costumes and expensive accessories, which in the eyes of government censors amounted to living above one's station in life and flagrantly violating sumptuary edicts. For failing to temper his love of excess, Tomijûrô II was banished from Osaka to other parts of Kamigata (Kyoto, Sakai, etc.) in 1843 for nearly two years.


Shibakuni's print is titled Nakamura Matsue gakuya iri no zu (View of Nakamura Matsue at the backstage entrance: 中村松江楽屋入の圖). Matsue is dressed as an onnagata away from the stage, in kimono with long sleeves signifying youth. His rush hat, when pulled down low to cover his face, was probably meant to suggest a means of disguise for secret trysts, which would, of course, titillate his fans. Sporting an off-stage female persona was a familiar attitude among the onnagata, derived from the teachings of Yoshizawa Ayame (1673-1729), the greatest onnagata in the history of kabuki. Ayame believed that on-stage performances were nourished by off-stage preparation in an actor's private life. At the height of their popularity, onnagata became arbiters of fashion, which gradually led to the commercial exploitation of products intended to benefit from fan adulation. Women rushed to acquire items associated with or endorsed by onnagata, such as combs, hairpins, scarves, obi, cosmetics, clothing, and tea. Woodblock-printed scenes of Osaka's pop-culture icons off stage were eagerly sought after by their fans and collectors of ukiyo-e. The same is true today.

The poem is signed 'Sankô' (三光), Matsue's early geimei (stage name: 芸名) when he performed as Nakamura Sankô (中村三光) in 1812-13 (the following theatrical season he became Matsue III, and Tomijûrô II in 1833).

This design is rare. Although the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston has an impression (Acc #11.36194), the great repositories of Osaka prints in Waseda University and Ikeda Bunko do not list this design in their published catalogs.