The Legacy of Sharaku: Expressionistic Portraiture in Japanese Theater

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    Sekino Jun’ichirō (1914-1988). 'The Puppet Manipulator Bungorö in the Greenroom.' Japan, Shöwa period (1926-1989), c. 1947. Woodblock print; ink and color on paper Gift of James A. Michener, 1955 (13557)

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    Natori Shunsen (1886-1960). 'Ichikawa Chüsha as Takechi Mitsuhide,' Japan, Shöwa period (1926-1989), 1926. Woodblock print; ink and color on paper. From the Charles Alfred Castle Memorial Collection in 1999 (26565)

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    Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825). 'Nakamura Nakazō II as Matsuōmaru in the play Sugawara Denju Tenarai Kagami,' Japan, Edo period (1615-1868), 1796. Woodblock print; ink and color on paper Purchase, 1951 (13065)

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October 18, 2012 - December 16, 2012
Honolulu Museum of Art

Exhibition Overview

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.