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The Virginia Museum's collection of 19th-century Japanese Ukiyo-e prints celebrates transient beauty.

The Actor's Image

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It is 1852. You are a Japanese middle-class businessman who lives in Edo (present day Tokyo). For entertainment, you frequent the pleasure quarters of the city to drink tea and sake, watch theatrical performances, and, yes, perhaps even visit a brothel or two. Edo is a booming metropolis filled with newly rich merchants who are demanding a culture that fits their needs. The slow-paced, traditional Noh plays are giving way to raucous, wildly entertaining Kabuki drama. Expensive, gold-covered, intellectual silk paintings are being replaced by cheap, easily reproduced woodblock prints.

Woodblock prints are the focus of the current exhibition, "The Actor's Image: The Japan-Virginia Society Collection of Ukiyo-e Prints" at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Ukiyo-e, or pictures of the floating world, describes a concept that embodies Japanese urban life, particularly at the end of the Edo Period (1603-1868). The concept of a floating or fleeting world derives from Buddhism, which taught that worldly joys and pleasures are all transient and one should strive for detachment from them. Interestingly, this concept was embraced by the hedonistic cities of Japan during this time as an excuse to live life to its fullest. In other words, if life is so short, why not savor every moment and have a good time? Like beauty and sex, theater was a prime example of a popular but highly transient pleasure.

The museum's show focuses on ukiyo-e prints of actors of the Kabuki theater. Kabuki was, and still is, a popular, highly stylized form of drama that incorporates singing, dancing and acting with colorful costumes and makeup and elaborate sets. The actors do not speak their lines, but convey emotions and narrative through exaggerated gestures, facial expressions and movement.

Understanding the technical process of producing a woodblock print is crucial to appreciating these works. It involves the expertise of an artist, carver and printer. The artist supplies the master design that is transferred to a semitransparent piece of paper, pasted to a woodblock, and chiseled out, leaving the lines raised for printing. For polychrome prints, like the ones on display, each color requires a separate block. The printing demands extreme skill in lining up registration marks to ensure that colors are aligned correctly within their proper spaces. Some of these prints are so perfect, it is difficult to imagine that they were produced in such a manner.

Typical characteristics of Japanese composition are evidenced in the works: strong diagonals, jutting vertical elements, layers of patterning and objects cut off by edges. Kunisada's diptych of a man and woman depicts a scene from a popular tale where a warrior becomes infatuated with a prostitute and eventually commits suicide (a common theme and fatal end to many of these plays). The two prints are grouped together as if they were a continuous scene. The figures are composed of layers of patterned garments placed within a confined, almost claustrophobic, space (like a stage set). Rich colors of red, teal, yellow and pink accentuate the beautiful balance between the strong vertical and horizontal architectural elements and the fluid, intricate figural poses.

The 60-plus prints of the exhibition are carefully and evenly placed on refreshingly Spartan white walls. Above, wood beams are constructed to imitate a Buddhist temple or traditional Japanese home. The organizers have wisely designed the space with austerity, simplicity and restraint very appropriate to Japanese sensibilities and aesthetics. Although it was somewhat disruptive to have four or five prints missing from the walls with only their tags and "temporarily removed" notices remaining, there are still plenty of examples of this fascinating genre to gain a full appreciation of them.

Nineteenth-century Japanese prints may seem far-removed from our world, but what is surprisingly evident is how similar their values were to late 20th-century America. In a world where we are encouraged to "just do it" and to embrace pleasures because "you only live once," these prints hold a particular resonance. Indeed, you may well heed ukiyo-e advice — don't simply talk about seeing this show, just do

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