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Sharaku a mystery two centuries later

Photo by Vicki Harris

Photo by Vicki Harris

After 216 years, Toshusai Sharaku is still a mystery. Theories abound as to his identity. What is not disputed, however, is his artistic genius. He left behind more than 140 highly innovative and experimental woodblock prints, a body of work which still resonates within contemporary Japanese art and design.

Some believe that he was an actor who was trying his hand at print making; others believe that Sharaku was the nom de plume of an established artist who did not want to sully his name while making highly experimental works. Another theory asserts that Sharaku was not one person, but a group of artists working together under that name. No one knows his birth date, when he died, or his real name.

The only record of Sharaku is the body of work he produced between May 1794 and February 1795.

Sharaku was a master of "ukiyo-e," prints made with carved wooden blocks. Ukiyo-e was popular during Japan's Edo period, an era spanning from 1603 to 1868. During the Edo period, Japan was ruled by shogun (military leaders) centered in the city of Edo, for which the period derives its name.

Ukiyo-e artists of this time depicted courtesans, warriors, sumo wrestlers, and Noh and Kabuki theater actors. Sharaku focused his work on portraits of actors in the Kabuki theater tradition. Kabuki is a highly stylized form of musical theater in which heavily made-up actors portray historical events, moral dilemmas, and melodramatic love affairs. Kabuki originated during the Edo period and was wildly popular with the common people. The older, more formal Noh style theater with its masked actors was preferred by the aristocracy. One theory explaining Sharaku's short-lived career is that his wealthy patron favored the Noh style to the Kabuki style and refused to support Sharaku's work when he produced portraits of Kabuki actors.

It is a fact that Sharaku was not appreciated in his time. Like most creative individuals who go against the grain, he was largely misunderstood. Unlike his contemporaries, Sharaku rendered his subjects with remarkable specificity. All of the works from this period were highly abstracted and stylized, as was Sharaku's. While his prints were no more realistic than those of other artists of the time, he presented his subjects as recognizable caricatures. Sharaku's genius lay in his ability to reveal each actor's humanity while staying true to the abstract style as well as the expressive likeness of the character each actor portrayed.

Since Sharaku was not appreciated in his time, he was largely forgotten. However, his popularity began to wax after his work was re-discovered in 1910 by a German scholar named Julius Kurth. The Japanese public took notice and began to re-evaluate his work as well.

With the advent of the 20th century, Sharaku's vision and innovation finally found an appreciative audience. As a testament to his importance, on his bicentennial in 1994, Japan's top graphic designers were asked to create posters celebrating the genius printmaker and his cultural importance.

The Japan Foundation organized an exhibition of these posters with original artworks by some of Japan's most important contemporary artists. As part of this exhibition, entitled "Sharaku Interpreted by Japan's Contemporary Artists," the Adachi Institute of Woodcut Prints in Tokyo faithfully reproduced a number of Sharaku's Kabuki portraits from the original woodblocks, using inks and colors that would have been part of his original works. Sharaku's original prints are exceedingly rare and most are badly faded. These reproductions bring to life the master's original vision and color sensibilities.

Many of the works by the contemporary artists in the exhibition were created especially for this show. These works include those by some of Japan's most prominent artists including Takashi Murakami and Yasumasa Morimura.

Paintings by Murakami, which feature his anime/Mickey Mouse inspired characters, present a caricature of popular culture similar to Sharaku's Kabuki portraits. Murakami, whose work has recently appeared in the halls of Versailles as well as in the 2010 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, mixes high and low culture often with controversial effects.

Morimura, who is known for his photographic self-portraits dressed as historical and artistic figures ranging from the Mona Lisa to Marilyn Monroe, casts himself as various actors from Sharaku's prints. Like Sharaku's portraits, Morimura plays with the give and take of identity between actors and the characters they portray.

One might wonder whether Sharaku would have made works like these if he were alive today. As a consummate experimentalist, a connoisseur of popular culture, and a notorious chameleon, my guess is that he would.

"Sharaku Interpreted ..." will be on display at the Albany Museum of Art from Friday until March 28. The AMA is open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. Admission is free.

Arts & Artists columnist Nick Nelson is executive director of the Albany Museum of Art, 311 Meadowlark Drive. His column is a regular feature in SouthView.