Historic Japanese performance art depictions on display

Art: Utagawa Kunisada II; Actors Sawamura Tosshō II as Hiranoya Kōjirō, Bandō Sanpachi V as Tōji’s Student Kane, Ichikawa Kodanji IV as Wakokubashi Tōji, and Ichimura Kakitsu IV as the Pickpocket Takemon no Tora, 1863

By Tara Pettit

Centuries over time humans have unleashed boundless creativity through myriad forms of artistic expression, never ceasing to explore, experiment, and test the limits of new and evolving art mediums and channels. Creativity is interwoven in humanity’s DNA. At the heart of our species’ artistic interplay is the desire to tell stories and to make connections with the people and places we find ourselves surrounded by.

To this day great art has been marked by its ability to convey compelling and relatable stories and its success in captivating human hearts by entering fully into the realm of our emotions and psyche. Few artistic genres prior to the nineteenth century have succeeded in capturing the complexity of the human psyche juxtaposed with the political and cultural background of a world divided by power and struggle than the Ukiyo-e wood block depictions of Kabuki Theater during the Japanese Edo period. Combining sheer spectacle, expressive artistry, opulent costuming, and violent dramatic action, the Kabuki prints of Japan’s 18th century characterize the political landscape and cultural lifestyles of a power-divided Japan and the rising of the newly prosperous urban merchant class of now modern day Tokyo, Sakai, Osaka, and Kyoto.

Considered one of the rarest and treasured parts housed within Dayton Art Institute’s (DAI) Japanese art collection, some of Kabuki art’s most renowned pieces have been curated for the museum’s 2017 gallery highlights in a six-month running exhibit of Kabuki wood block prints titled, Acting Up: Kabuki in Japanese Prints.

In its first installation, Acting Up featured a diverse selection of seven to 10 wood blocks prints of various popular Kabuki artists and scenes by some of the most recognized Kabuki artists living between the late 1700s and late 1800s. It was artists such as Utagawa Kunisada, Toyohara Kunichika, and Toshusai Sharaku who created the masterpieces that are the hallmark prints defining Kabuki art today and which are part of DAI’s extremely rare collection.

“Several of the artists in our collection, like for example Sharaku, produced work very emblematic of Kabuki actors from Japan and were the image of these performances once printed on napkins, posters, and other materials,” says Peter Doebler, Dayton Art Institute’s curatorial coordinator. “Our iconic Sharaku print is the highlight of the exhibit as the oldest and most iconic of Kabuki art. His work is very rare and hard to get a hold of these days. We are very lucky to have these in our collection.”

Shakaru’s work was very different from most of the Kabuki artists at the time with its distinct lines, colors, and magnified bust portraits of the actor in expressive detail. Although Sharaku’s active career as a woodblock artist spanned only 10 months and at the time his work was met with disapproval, today Sharuku pieces are considered some of the greatest in the Ukiyo-e genre, known for capturing the raw emotions of the actors to which each Kabuki performance drew out in relation to the current world events. It is works such as Shakaru’s iconic “Gorobei, the Fishmonger from San’ya”, a hallmark piece in DAI’s featured exhibit, that have come to represent the Kabuki art form and define its influence over time.

Majority of the pieces featured in Acting Up relive the most popular scenes from famous Kabuki performances, drumming up the excitement and action of infamous fights, dramatic lover suicides, and riotous portrayals of comedic delight. The actors depicted in performances were drawn from Japanese history as well as key players in current events, and the plays themselves brought to life resonating stories old and new of swashbuckling samurai, melodramas of star-crossed lovers, ghost stories, and tales of heroism, loyalty and tragedy.

The stories conveyed in Kabuki Theater largely spoke to the unrest of the divided times and gave rise to an artistic rebellion against the power and class struggles that formed out of the merchant class’ dissatisfaction at being denied access to political power or gain. As a result, the repressed sought expressive freedom by spending money lavishly on cultural frivolities and cultivating a lifestyle defined by fashion, sensual pleasure, and entertainment that revoked the established militaristic order.

Kabuki performances offered the comedic and dramatic outlet for the frustrations of the time, enabling disadvantaged citizens to share laughs, heartaches, and similar fantasies through stories of political downfall and hierarchical collapse. The wood block prints created of Kabuki Theater represented an iconic collection of the most notable scenes from these performances. Public desire to collect these cherished artifacts from favorite performances helped fuel the collective drive to be part of the live performances themselves.

Often incorporating exaggerated spins on old tales and news of current events, Kabuki performances would last for hours in which the print designs were created while the scenes were unfolding. Once the original design by the artist was completed at the time of the performance, they were handed off to fellow wood block printers to create the actual wood-rubbed print. The prints then became the main images displayed on napkins, posters, and other materials marketing the Kabuki performances. The end-to-end process of designing, printing, and developing Kabuki art was very collaborative, characterizing the creative camaraderie that shaped an artistic form representing a collective rebellion against the corruption and unbalanced power that was so much a part of the Edo period’s class structure.

DAI’s Kabuki collection successfully portrays a diversity across subject matter of what artists would choose to highlight from performances – from highly focused and detailed portraits of particular actors with their trademark expressions, to the memorable moment of “mie” where an entire cast pauses mid-scene to allow for laughter, applause, or today’s photographic opportunity.

“What we were hoping to achieve with this exhibition was to expose people to Kabuki, but also the way in which these wood block prints were so much part of the culture at the time,” Doebler says. “In the late 1700s, Kabuki really became a key part of mass entertainment – like going to the movies now – and the actors were really the stars of their time.”

Like following a favorite movie star, Kabuki-goers would track and collect anything that featured their favorite actor in a prominent role. And much like today, visual depictions from performances became the iconic expression linking a fan to the qualities and aspects that were cherished of a particular character or scene. The Kabuki pieces represent Japan’s excellence in wood block printing and superiority in re-creating vivid imagery through deep coloring and ornate design. It was the prints that essentially fueled the craze for Kabuki Theater.

“People would even steal the posters of their favorite actors and scenes because they were so vibrant, attractive, and well-loved,” Doebler says.

Characteristic of many Kabuki prints was the incorporation of the actor’s name, character’s name, and occasionally the name of the artist printed into a red box featured in the piece. These labels served as a sort of confirmation of the Kabuki piece in what can be defined as some of the earliest cross-collaborative endeavors that blended fine art and performance art. Most Kabuki artists of the time, such as the prolific Kunisada who produced the most Japanese prints over time and has several pieces featured in DAI’s collection, did not adhere to the stylistic constraints set by contemporary artists at the time and vehemently defied the established order to demonstrate solidarity against political corruption, restrictions, and censorship.

In a way, Kabuki printing can be considered a progressive, disruptive form of artistic expression that contributed to a mass upheaval against injustice and gave voice to the collective body. In the very least, the art form set the stage for future collaborative artistic endeavors and transformed the way the public approached art, creating interactions based on entertainment and expressionism. The genre has established an entirely new way of seeing, embracing, and finding connection in art by bringing liveliness and playfulness that served an important role in dealing with the pressures and struggles that surrounded the times.

“Kabuki printing is a change-of-pace type of art with a liveliness and offbeat quality that really resonates with audiences,” Doebler says.

Consequently, it is easy to find Kabuki’s influence in today’s art, media, and entertainment where much of contemporary anime and manga genres, now popular in western culture, depict characters and scenes that were originally staged for Kabuki Theater. Doebler indicates that many people in western culture find the general visual and aesthetic quality of Japanese art very interesting, leading to a cultural embracing of anime and manga and integration of other Japanese forms of art.

“It’s interesting to browse Kabuki art databased and see how similar characters and costuming appear in art, anime, and media today,” Doebler says. “We know there is a deep appreciation of Japanese art and Dayton Art Institute has a majority of its Asian collection dedicated to Japan – about 200 prints and 500 small objects.”

DAI’s Kabuki exhibit, much like its previous Deco Japan exhibit from two years ago, has received positive feedback from the Dayton community. Doebler hopes this particular exhibit brings forth a unique quality of playfulness not often found in art of its time and that visitors walk away with a sense of the great diversity and excitement that made these prints so beloved and so defining at the time.

“Even though these pieces are over 150 years old, they feel as if they could have been made today in reaction to our current world,” Doebler says. “When you observe Kabuki coming right off the pages of today’s popular art, you realize this is part of something much older that is continuing. Hopefully our exhibit will help make that connection between today’s Japanese depictions and some of the earliest work that will encourage people to learn more about its beginnings.”

Acting Up will be on exhibit at Dayton Art Institute, 456 Belmonte Park N. in Gallery 105 through January 28, 2018. The cost to view the exhibit is free to members and included in the museum’s suggested admission for non-members. For more information, call 937.223.4278 or visit www.DaytonArtInstitute.org

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Tara Pettit is a regional journalist and communications specialist with a focus on the arts, social/environmental justice issues, and community activism. She is passionate about cultivating intentional community and engaging in collaborative creative projects that make healthy community possible. Reach her at TaraPettit@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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