Kabuki Actor Prints from the Late Eighteenth Century
The kabuki tradition can be traced back to early seventeenth-century female performances in Kyoto led by a woman named Okuni, an attendant at Izumo Grand Shrine. The female entertainers, many of whom practiced prostitution, frequently casued such a commotion among their viewers that the government banned all female performers in 1629. Soon, young men (wakashu) performed wakashu kabuki, only to be banned in 1652 for the public disturbances caused by their accompanying male prostitution. Eventually, the all-male performances resulted in actors who specialized in male roles (aragoto) or female (onnagata). Secrets of craft, such as stylized gestures (kata) and dramatic poses (mie), were passed down from father to son (or adopted son). Family names and family crests of popular lineages of kabuki actors were instantly recognized among fans, and woodblock prints of these actors were eagerly collected.
This selection of actor-prints features works by artists of the Katsukawa School--the founder Shunsho (1726-1793) and his pupils Shunko (1743-1812) and Shun'ei (ca. 1762-1819)--the famous artist Sharaku (fl. 1794-1795), and Utagawa Toyokuni (1769-1825). The period from 1760-1800 marks the second golden age of kabuki, and some of the best actor-prints were created during this time. The actor-print genre first flowered (with kabuki performances) during the Genroku period (1688-1704) with works by Masanobu (ca. 1686-1764) and Torii Kiyonobu (ca. 1664-1729), the found of the Torii School. By the mid-eighteenth century, however, the flamboyant line and color of the Torii School style had begun to lose life and expressive effect. Shunsho's art offered a bold change from Torii School convention. Not only were his prints influenced by the colorful palette of Haranobu (ca. 1725-1770), renowned for his multi-colored "brocade prints" (nishiki-e) of the 1760s, but also rich with subtle differences in facial expressions that brought the individual actors to life.
Compared to the formalized treatment of actors in older portraits, Shunsho's prints seemed remarkably natural and "realistic" to his viewers. The period fascination for increased realism through more descriptive surface detail and sensitive figural depiction cratead the fertile ground from which Sharaku's idiosyncratic with and highly individualized psychological portraits were born.