Little is known about the life of the masterful Osaka printer designer Shunkôsai Hokushû (春好齋北洲), active circa 1802–32). He appears to have made a living as a businessman (possibly as a lumber or paper merchant). He participated in poetry clubs (haikai and kyôka) and was a kabuki enthusiast, with membership in at least one fan club.
He used five signatures over the course of his career: Shunkô (春好), from 1/1802 until 1/1818; Shunkôsai (春好斎) alone from 8/1809, or in tandem with Hokushû (北洲) from 1/1818; Shôkôsai (his teacher's art name) for only one print in 9/1811, on which he includes aratame ("changing to") announcing the name change to Shôkôsai (II); Sekkatei (雪花亭) in 1819 as a proofing copyist for an ehon by Katsushika Hokusai (Denshin kaishu Hokusai gashiki) and in 1822 on two single-sheet prints; and Hokushû (北洲) alone from 1/1818 until the end of his career. He also used two literary names: Shikan (until 11/1825, 芝翫) and Baigyoku (11/1825–7/1838, 梅玉) that appear, for instance, with poems inscribed on prints.
Hokushû was productive but not prolific, given his thirty-year career. He can be credited with at least 214 surviving single-sheet prints. (He seems to have produced few ehon, woodblock-printed illustrated books.) His first known sheet is a hosoban from 1/1802 with a poem signed by his teacher Shôkôsai. The portrait depicts Otani Tomoemon II as Inokuma Monbei (猪のくま門兵衛) in Keisei kuruwa Genji (けいせい廓源氏) at the Naka Theater, Osaka. There is then a puzzling hiatus from 1802 until 1807, a period for which no prints have surfaced for Hokushû.
Hokushû was arguably the best of his generation, producing an oeuvre that exemplified the third-generation development of Osaka printmaking. His earliest prints, in hosoban format, derive partly from Ryûkôsai, the founder of the mature style of actor portrait in Osaka, but more so from Ryûkôsai's student Shôkôsai. However, once Hokushû adopted the ôban format in 5/1812, the amplitude of his figures increased, usually sporting wide, square faces and capacious bodies that occupy a majority percentage of the pictorial space (see image above right, a portrayal of Arashi Kichisaburô II (嵐吉三郎) as Gofukuya (clothes vender) Jûbei (ごふくや十兵衛) in Igagoe norikake gappa (伊賀越), 1/1811, hosoban, published by Shichô-ban (Shioya Chôbei)).
Eventually, Hokushû's actors slimmed down as the drawing became more curvilinear, coinciding with the appearance of his "Hokushû" signature, and decidedly so starting in 1820. That same year marked the appearance of Hokushû’s remarkable ôban ôkubi-e close-up or (bust portraits), the first in 3/1820, the last in 7/1826 (see below for the example depicting Nakamura Utaemon III (中村歌右衛門) as Gotobei (五斗兵衛) in a production of Yoshitsune Koshigôjô (Yoshitsune’s Koshigôe petition: 義経腰越状), 3/1825, Kado Theater, Osaka, from the series Issei ichidai atari kyôgen (Hit plays of a lifetime: 一世一代当狂言), published by Honsei).
In his early period, Hokushû collaborated at least 63 times with the monopolistic publisher Shioya Chôbei, from 9/1807 to 1/1819. In his later period, after the breakup of the Shioya publishing hegemony, he worked most often with Honya Seishichi (48 times) and Toshikuraya Shinbei (26 times). The remaining publishers included (in order of frequency) Yamaichi, Arihadô Chûbei, Izutsuya Denbei, Tenmaya Kihei, and Wataya Kihei.
Of the many actors portrayed by Hokushû, the luminary Arashi Kichisaburô II (1769-1821) dominated the artist's’s oeuvre until the actor's death in 9/1821 (see hosoban print above). Afterwards, the superstar Nakamura Utaemon III (1778–1838), Kichisaburō II's main rival, appeared in about 76 works with "Hokushû" signatures (not including another 23 or so times during Kichisaburô's lifetime).
Although Hokushû continued to produce single-sheet prints until around 1831-32, there was a steep drop-off after 1825. By then, a new generation of printmakers began to dominate the printmaking market. Some of these artists were students of Hokushû, who had many followers, numbering around 25 starting as early as 1815, making him one of the most active teachers in all of Osaka printmaking. Among these pupils was the fourth-generation master, Shunbaisai Hokuei. © 2019 by John Fiorillo
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- Gerstle, C. Andrew and Akiko Yano: Ryûkôsai zuroku: Kamigata yakusha niagao-e no reimei (Ryûkôsai catalogue: The dawn of Osaka print actor likenesses). Nishimonjiya, Hyôhô: Mukugawa Joshi Daigaku Kansai Bunka Kenkyû Senta (Mukogawa Women's University Kansai Culture Research Center), 2009.
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- Matsudaira, Susumu: Kamigata yakusha-e shûsei (Collection of Kamigata actor prints), Vol. I. Osaka: Hankyû Gakuen Ikeda Bunko, 1997.