ALBANY -- In a 10-month period as the 18th century was about to close, a previously unheard of artist produced 140 woodblock prints that were sharp departures from the artistic style of the Edo period in Japan.
Toshusai Sharaku debuted in May 1894 with depictions of actors in their kabuki or kyogen roles, along with sumo wrestlers and warriors. Included in those early efforts were 28 large portraits of kabuki actors that now are the most popular of his works. Sharaku's style evolved over the months, moving from individual subjects in narrow format with realistic expressions to prints that showed detailed background images as well. By the time the final works were produced in February 1795, the dynamic depictions from the earliest works had diminished.
And as mysteriously as Sharaku burst onto the scene, he disappeared. The public wasn't enamored with his style, which was considered undesirable because of its more realistic depiction of his subjects. What popularity he had disappeared almost as quickly and Sharaku wasn't heard of again -- until he was rediscovered in 1910 by German scholar Julius Kurth. His book, "Sharaku," created interest in the West and brought him to the forefront. That led to re-evaluation of Sharaku's work in Japan, and recognition of Sharaku as an outstanding ukiyo-e artist.
"What made him different was the realism within the prints," Albany Museum of Art Curator Merritt Giles said last week at the museum's exhibition, "Sharaku Interpreted ..." "Of course, to us right now, these don't look that realistic. They look cartoonish to some. But at the time, no one else (in Japan) was doing work like this.
"You can actually look at these and tell there is a different model. His work was deemed too realistic, with the facial expressions and the distinction between each person. Back then, a lot of the stuff was just a generic face and these separated from that and had more detail to them. They were seen as too real from the facial expressions."
The Japanese public wasn't used to seeing people depicted as caricatures. "We can actually look at these and tell which are the same models from the detail he's doing in the face," Giles said.
The 81-piece exhibit includes a mixture of prints made from Sharaku's original woodblocks to works by contemporary artists that were influenced by the ukiyo-e master. Included in the exhibition are posters that were part of a 200th anniversary tribute to Sharaku, two pieces of sculpture, a collection of ceramic pieces and music boxes.
The modern pieces include work by artists such as Takashi Murakami, which his whimsical, Disney-esque "And then, and then and then and then and then 3A" and "And then, and then and then and then and then 3B" and Miran Fukuda's ultra-realistic takes on a pair of Sharaku prints, "Otani Oniji as the Servant Edohei" and "Sanokawa Ichimatsu III as Onayo." Another, Yasumasa Morimura, interprets Sharaku's work by recreating it in mixed media with himself as the model.
"It's really nice to have the works from the 1700s mixed with the contemporary works that have been influenced by that," Giles said.
The exhibit was made available by the Japan Foundation, which promotes cultural interchange between Japan and other nations. The exhibit came to Albany from Peru, and will travel to Miami after it closes March 26.
A focal point of the exhibit in the museum's main gallery are 28 portraits re-created from Sharaku's original woodblocks.
"These woodblocks are some of the earliest ones he did, which are the most famous," Giles said, noting they were his favorite part of the exhibit. "He just appeared one day with these works and 10 months later they never heard from him again."
Indeed, no is sure who he was. There is speculation he was a noh actor named Saito Jurobel, who lived in Hacchobori, Edo. Giles said there are other theories as well, including one that he even may have been Korean.
"They don't know exactly who he was," he said. "There are many theories out there. Sharaku was just a name that he put out.
"They have a theory that he was a much more famous artist of the time who was just experimenting and didn't want to put his name on these per se because he didn't know how people would react to them. Another theory is that these are actually a group of printmaking artists who got together and decided to try something new."
While his identity is a mystery, his influence on contemporary Japanese artists is no secret. Among the pieces on display are posters that were produced in the mid-1990s in celebration of the 200th anniversary of Sharaku's 10-month career.
"A lot of the contemporary Japanese artists now use him as an influence," Giles said. "I think we've got a little over 30 posters ... celebrating 200 years of Sharaku. These were the big graphic artists in Japan at the time. Each of them did their own poster with inspiration from his work. Some are just taking his original work and tweaking it a little bit, and others are going very far from it. They all have a little of the aspects of the work of Sharaku."
The Sharaku exhibit is unique for the Albany museum.
"We were very, very lucky to have it come here," Giles said. "Some of these contemporary artists are very big international artists, so we're very lucky to have something like this here in Albany."
In its first weeks, the show has been popular with museum visitors. About 1,300 people have come through while the exhibit has been on display. It will continue through March 26.
"We're already getting a very nice response from the city on this show," Giles said. "A lot of the kids already love this show because of the Japanamation on the cartoons. They like coming in here and seeing posters like that and works that relate to that.
"We've had a good response -- young and old -- from this show. We try to get as varied shows as we possibly can. This coming up was absolutely perfect."
The museum at 311 Meadowlark Drive -- adjacent to Darton College and just off Gillionville Road -- is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays. Admission is free.
From 7 p.m. until 9 p.m. on Thursday, the museum will conduct a fundraiser in connection with the Sharaku show -- Sake and Sharaku. Admission is $30 and it will feature a sake tasting, including a complimentary sake cup, and sushi. Consul General Takuji Hanatani from the office of the Consulate General of Japan in Atlanta has confirmed that he will attend the event.