Japanese prints aren’t an art form that many are familiar with. I was correspondingly in the dark when I dropped in to have a look at the Ashmolean’s exhibition of twenty woodblock prints of Kubuki actors armed only with a passable knowledge of the artist Hokusai, a guide book, and the rather reassuring admission of a staff member that even she ‘hadn’t a clue how to pronounce any of the names’.
The prints belong to a Japanese tradition of stylized representations of much-beloved Kabuki actors, whose dramatic theatrical style has been wildly fashionable, entertaining and notorious in Japan ever since the 17th century when a former prostitute and Shinto shrine dancer performed with her troupe to great acclaim in 1603. Woodblock prints of the actors were a hot commodity amongst the large fan base and depict the actors in costume and in character.
The older prints are dynamic and colourful: the actors faces contorted into grotesque caricature for the ‘villains’ and heroic bravado for the ‘heroes’. ‘The Catfish Priest’, a print depicting one play’s evil denizen, almost makes the exhibition worth seeing singlehandedly: his long sideburns and amusingly sinister characterisation are brilliantly evocative.
Along with the older, largely nineteenth-century prints, there are several prints by a contemporary Japanese artist, Tsuruya Kokei, whose work continues the Kabuki tradition. These are unmistakeably modern with simple but effective colour schemes, spare and static composition, and a quality of stillness which is completely different from the wild movement of the older prints.
Kokei’s work has been very popular both in Japan and abroad for several decades. Although he has since retired from his artistic career, these prints are well worth seeing as an example of a contemporary artist who combines specialization and popularity to make him an alternative ‘favourite’ to ‘discover’.
This is an exhibition for the non-pedant. With only twenty prints in the exhibition, and filling a space equivalent to half a seminar room, it is the perfect go-to place for students with a tight schedule. But be warned: there is very little explanation of an art that for many is quite alien, although the little that is explained is enough to make you eager for more.
Visit the bookshop and pick up a copy of The Art of Edo Japan which has enlightening references to the art you will have encountered, expanding into a general discussion of Japanese art over the few hundred years that Kabuki prints were most popular. This is a useful surrogate to the inadequate contextual detail provided by the exhibition itself. For the true enthusiasts, the Ashmolean’s Curator of Japanese Art, Dr Clare Pollard, is offering a tour of the exhibition in second and sixth week.