When it comes to ancient proverbs, one of my favourites is “quality not quantity”. Sometimes all it takes is a minimal selection of fantastic pieces of artwork to capture an audience and stimulate an instant interest. Having ventured into the Ashmolean museum in search of an exhibition which I had been recommended by a friend, I discovered the misconception that ‘size is everything’ to be duly unwarranted. Amidst the directions from the steward on duty to the location of this particular exhibition, there was the constant apology that it wasn’t very big, assuming that this would lead to a disappointment on my part. However, he couldn’t have been more wrong.
Situated in the tiny Eastern Art Paintings gallery in the Ashmolean Museum is the exhibition of the “Yakusha-e” prints from Japan. Gallery 29 which houses the Eastern Art Paintings is a corner section in the right hand side of the Ashmolean, with one wall sloping diagonally to create a kind of triangle space. Despite its size, there are a reasonable number of the prints on display, effectively contrasting the older prints from two 19th century artists with those of a more contemporary print maker.
Kabuki is the name for Japan’s theatre tradition which has stretched back more than 400 years, with the “Yakusha-e” being an integral part of the Kabuki legacy. “Yakusha-e” is defined, according to the Ashmolean’s information boards, as the brightly coloured woodblock prints of actors performing in well-known plays in Japan. These prints were then sold on to fans of the plays throughout the centuries to preserve the actors and their work. They are effectively the 17th century equivalent to the modern day posters such as those of Johnny Depp or Robert Pattinson. The “Yakusha-e” often depicted famous performers in positions of intense emotion or drama, symbolising the climax of that particular story. This intense pose is called “mie” and often is illustrated by the crossing of the eyes, particularly amongst male characters, especially the heroes of the story when at the point of defeating the villain. Just like the original productions of Shakespeare’s plays, women actors were banned in Kabuki and therefore men played all the roles, gathering more fame as respected actors.
When the first “Yakusha-e” appeared they were typically full length portraits with minimal background to distract away from the characters themselves. In the exhibition there is a triptych of three postmen or couriers, identified by their black gloves and gaiters, which demonstrate this earlier tendency, despite being made by the 19th century artist Toyohara Kunichika. After the 1790s, a greater variation was seen as portraits were cut to half length, showing the torso and head and focusing in on the actors “bringing the fans much closer to their favourite stars” (Ashmolean).
It is this later trend which the exhibition focuses on, displaying prints by the artists Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) and Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1864). Their designs are bright and colourful, depicting a centralised character with a busy and scenic background, often with copious writing on scrolls which appear throughout the print. These artists worked on their designs before sending them off to another artist who would then carve their design into a block of wood before paint was applied and the prints were created.
The interesting thing about this exhibition, apart from the vividness and extraordinary eye catching 19th century prints, is that it manages to capture not only the centuries old examples of the Kabuki prints, but also the essence of contemporary reinterpretations around this tradition. It includes a selection of prints by the contemporary artist Tsuruya Kokei and the contrast between the two styles helps redefine the “Yakusha-e” tradition in a similar manner to the 1790 turn around. Kokei’s prints are much sparser than Kunisada’s and Kunichika’s, focusing much more on a simplified, almost caricature-esque, depiction of these actors.
Whether you like bright and colourful pieces of artwork or just generally have an interest in the Eastern Arts, this exhibition has something everyone will enjoy. I whole heartedly recommend it.