October 18, 2012
December 16, 2012
Honolulu Museum of Art
A formalist comparison between the works of Tōshūsai Sharaku (act. c. 1793-1794) and those of his followers reveals what an immediate and enduring impression his iconoclastic style left upon the subsequent history of Japanese art. Sharaku’s expressionistic approach to portraiture, so attuned to the flamboyant stage presence of the kabuki actors he depicted, was quickly adopted by other print artists and perpetuated through the remainder of the Edo period (1615-1868).
The popularization of photography in the late 19th and early 20th centuries led portrait artists of the Shöwa period (1926-1989) to depict their subjects with far more mimetic accuracy than before, but ironically, this surge of interest in realism emphasized all the more the kabuki actors’ exaggerated facial expressions (mie). Twentieth-century artists who focused primarily upon bunraku puppet theater similarly heightened the emotional intensity of their images by contrasting the facial expressions of the puppets with those of puppeteers and other human bystanders.
More than 200 years after his sudden disappearance, Sharaku’s biography sadly remains as clouded in mystery as ever. The evocative works he left behind as well as those he indirectly inspired, however, thoroughly reveal to us a subject that is arguably more compelling than the particular details of his own life could possibly have been: the passionate personalities of dozens of characters from the emotionally charged world of traditional Japanese theater.