Art Exhibition: Kabuki – Japanese Theatre Prints
Come face to face with Kabuki theatre’s most famous characters!
Date: 4th October 2013 – 2nd February 2014
The opening up of Japan to the rest of the world after Commodore Perry’s 1853 visit sparked a craze in the West for Japanese art and design. Called Japonisme it began in the late 1850s and peaked with and after what is considered by some the most pivotal event in the history of Japanese art in the West; the exhibition of Sir Rutherford Alcock’s collection of Japanese art at the 1862 International Exhibition in London. The prints on display at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, curated by Rosina Buckland, are a selection of the finest in the Museum’s collection of around 4,000 prints which were acquired in the 1880s. Those on display cover the period between 1830-1870, the latter part of which heralded a time of change and upheaval which ultimately led to the downfall of the Tokugawa Shōgunate, the Meiji Restoration and the modernisation of Japan.
The exhibition is accessible to anyone unfamiliar with Kabuki with the use of user friendly English language descriptions which accompany the prints in the exhibition whilst for specialists and Kabuki aficionados more detailed descriptions as well as Japanese language titles in Romaji and Kanji/Kana (Japanese script) are provided in the handy sized exhibition catalogue. Large print labels accompany the exhibition as a helpful addition for those with visual impairment.
Print 1 gives a good impression of the inside of an Edo era theatre during the performance of the play ‘Wait a Minute!’ (Shibaraku). The print has also been greatly enlarged and decorates a large adjacent wall. Apart from helping to see the finer detail and activities amongst the audience it allows the viewer to imagine being in the theatre. What might have complimented this, helped to complete the audio-visual experience and given the viewer unfamiliar with the world of Kabuki the feel of a performance in a Kabuki theatre of old would have been the addition of an existing video clip. Filmed at the refurbished old style Kabuki theatre, the Kanamuraza at Kotohira, it shows the main character, Kamakura Gongorō Kagemasa (played by Ichikawa Ebizō XI), appearing on the hanamichi walkway, his opening speech and his stamping walk through the audience and on to the stage.
Print 2, the scene in a public bath house reflects the important connections between the bathhouses and Kabuki, something which Okamoto Kido emphasises in his seminal book on Meiji Era Kabuki, ‘Talks on Meiji Era Theatre: Under the Lamp’ (Meiji Gekidan Ranpu no Shitanite), relating how bath house managers were engaged by Kabuki actors and theatres to disseminate information about the actors and Kabuki related publications, and to publicise performances.
The important role of the patronage of Edo fishmongers is briefly mentioned for prints 42 and 43 though information on this type of patronage could have been expanded on since it applied to other trades also, as well as the importance of food for the Kabuki theatre goer and hence the popularity of ‘kabesu’, and the social milieu that was a part of the theatre attendance as an artistic and social event.
Special mention must be made of three particularly evocative prints of the ‘nōryō’ (enjoying the cool of the evening) genre:
Print 40, ‘Five Edo Gallants’ (Gonin Otoko), of five actors enjoying the evening cool near Ryōgoku Bashi Bridge by Utagawa Kunisada, 1862, the design and style of which was borrowed by Toyohara Kunichika for his 1863 work the pentaptych ‘The Gang of Five Coming Home Like Wild Ducks’
Print 44, ‘The Cool of the evening at Azuma Bridge’ (Azuma-bashi Yūsuzumi no Zu) which is of better quality than the slightly faded edition of the same print which recently appeared at the exhibition ‘Pictures of the Floating World: Enjoying the Cool Evening Breeze and Fireworks’ (Ukiyo e: Nōryō to Hanabi) at the Isetan Museum in Kyōto in September 2013 (Print 10).
Print 45, the charming and evocative ‘Imagine Scene of Chasing Fireflies in the Evening Light’ (Mitate Hotaru-gari Yakō Tama-Zoroi)
Whilst the exhibition charts the development and style of Kabuki related prints in both Edo (modern day Tōkyō) and Ōsaka and the difference between the two, in the same way it would have been helpful to have included in the exhibition itself more information on the impact of the Tenpō Reforms, which were especially aimed at Kabuki and in particular print making, on the materials and production of Kabuki prints, on the theatres themselves (perhaps with a contemporary map and illustration of Saruwaka-chō where the theatres were relocated as a consequence of the reforms), and on the private and professional lives of the Kabuki actors. As it there is a gap in the exhibition prints between 1834 Ōsaka and 1836 Edo to the post Tenpō prints of the late 1840s.
The exhibition does provide an insight into the post Tenpō private lives of the Kabuki actors (prints 44 – 52) and the period of upheaval leading up to the Meiji Restoration of 1868 (prints 53 -58).
Overall the exhibition is enjoyable and accessible. It succeeds visually in its attempt to cover the development of Kabuki prints and makes a decent attempt at setting the context in which Kabuki existed in the period covered by the exhibition. More information is included in the catalogue which, for the Kabuki aficionado would be worth purchasing before seeing the exhibition.
For more details click here.
Kabuki print plates courtesy of the National Museum of Scotland
Trevor Skingle was born and lives in London where he works in the field of Humanitarian Disaster Relief. He is a Japanophile and his hobbies are Kabuki, painting and drawing and learning Japanese.