japonisme: 2/24/08 - 3/2/08

01 March 2008

vanity, thy name is onnagata

in order to better grasp the disfavor that met sharaku's work, we need some context. we've already noted that his primary subjects were kabuki actors. "These actors (all male), like the No actors, came from long generations of theater families and learned the conventions of the theater from imitation of their predecessors. In kabuki, the actor is supreme and the scripts for the plays are primarily guidelines for the action which the actors may interpret as they see fit. Emphasis is placed on elaborate costuming and make-up and music and dance (including highly stylized posturing and gestures)." 1

Yamashita Kinsaku II was an outstanding onnagata (female roles) actor, who won fame for himself in both Edo and Kamigata during the second half of the eighteenth century. 2 His specialties included pretty boy roles (iroko) and young female roles (waka onnagata). He first appeared on stage at the Nakamura Kumetaro Theater in Kyoto in 1747, and was adopted by Yamashita Kinsaku I and became Yamashita Kinsaku II in 1749. In 1752 he moved to Edo and performed at the Nakamura Theater. In 1755 he went back to Osaka. In 1769 he went to Edo again and became famous. He ranked as the best actor of female roles in 1779. He excelled in all female roles and was also a skilled haikai (comic linked-verse) poet. 3

but further, we need to understand about the social environment the kabuki actors experienced.

according to nancy g. hume, in her book japanese aesthetics and culture, "the life of the actor -- his background, training, and professional and social relationships -- was fascinating to the wider audience of theatergoers. the main focus of kabuki was less the play than the actor who attracted attention not only because of his dramatic talent but because of his lineage, his physical assets, and his private life. boyish beauty, unusual acting ability, elaborate reputations for a luxurious lifestyle, and romantic entanglements titillated a public vulnerable to the glamour of the theater world.

the most popular actors lived in luxury, commanding high salaries and receiving lavish gifts from admirers and patrons. some of the more prosperous, particularly in kyoto and osaka, became theater owners. others owned or had a part interest in teahouses. some kept a considerable number of beautiful youths in their homes whom they trained as actors.

customers of the teahouses could arrange for these boys to entertain and drink with them and serve as sexual partners. daimyo and men of wealth summoned them to their mansions to entertain and to spend the night. called iroko (sex youths) or butaiko (stage youths), they ranged in age from thirteen to about seventeen.

estimates claim that 80 or 90 percent of the onnagata during the first half of the toku- gawa period started as iroko. yamashita kinsaku is only one of the many actors who emerged from this background." 4

now if you were a man in the public eye, known for your womanly grace and overall attractiveness, which of these portraits, by seven different artists and displayed in chronological order, would really just bug you the most? and wouldn't your fans just rail?!

and what has changed? a real fan will not want to see unflattering portraits of their favorite movie stars, but judging by the checkstand tabloids, there is still a desire by enough of the rest of us to see into the stars' "true natures," unflattering or not.

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28 February 2008

enigmas of kabuki

it should come as no surprise that the prints from the japanese closest in execution to the german and american poster designs we have been discussing are those of figures in show business. with their powerful simplicity, graphic purity, and eye-catching colors and outlines, these prints of actors (the up-on-young-girls'-walls posters of the edo era) accomplished just what the madalena ones did: they got your attention and they got remembered.

of course, these prints were all portraits of men. even when they are playing a princess their jaw-lines give them away. why is it all grown men?

Kabuki perform- ers during the earliest years of the genre were primarily women. Kabuki is thought to have originated in the dances and light theater first performed in Kyoto in 1603 by Okuni, a female attendant at the Izumo shrine. The word kabuki had connotations of the shocking, unorthodox, and fashionable, and it came to be applied to the performances of Okuni's popular troupe and its imitators. Because an important side business of the onna (women's) kabuki troupes was prostitution, the Tokugawa shogunate disapproved, banning the troupes in 1629 and making it illegal for women to appear on stage. Wakashu (young men's) kabuki then became popular, but in 1652 it was also banned because of the adverse effect on public morals of the prostitution activities of the adolescent male actors.

With both women and boys banned, kabuki became a thea- ter of mature male performers, although before yaro (men's) kabuki was permitted to continue performing, the government required that the actors avoid sensual displays and follow the more realistic conventions of the kyogen theater. 1

i could post a handful of images of these actors every day for years and not run out of images with exquisite lines, and bold prints and color. the costumes these men wore displayed design, art, and craftsmanship rarely seen even in the many many prints we have looked at up to now. and, in part, it is due to the powerful simplicity of the images. perhaps the most controversial ukiyo-e artist featuring actors was sharaku.

sharaku's work was considered quite controversial for the time. while all of the portraits are stylized (as are the ones they inspired in the west), his were considered to have "gone too far." they were the most "grotesque," the most extreme, and the most accurate. these actors were heros, and audiences felt sharaku did not honor them sufficiently. after only ten months and 140 prints, he disappeared.

in fact he may never have existed at all; his existence is still a matter of conjecture and specu- lation. it has been thought that "he" may have been a satirically-minded group of artists working together. a recent theory is that sharaku was actually hokusai, who himself disappeared from the art world for several years which just happened to coincide with sharaku's appearance. in any case, this was the 1700s, and sharaku is now, in retrospect, seen by many collectors as the world's first modern artist. 2

viewing these portraits you will quickly note the exaggerated poses and, even more evident, the crossed eyes! there is a reason for them:

crossed eyes demonstrate an emotional aspect of the kabuki actor’s repertoire on the stage. In kabuki there are what are called "mie" ("displays"), numerous types of expressive static poses taken at climactic moments in plays. Most if not all of the mie have unique names, and there are many. Some are quite dramatic, as in "aragoto" ("wild business") plays, which typically involve tales of bravado and heroism. In these plays, more closely associated with (but not exclusive to) the great Edo (old Tokyo) stage, the actor might, for example, snap his head abruptly into a static position, strike a glaring expression, and cross his eyes. 3 (often to wild applause)

and again a remin- der of what de- sign, fash- ion, advertising, art, looked like in the west only two years before trading began with japan. through enormous detail truth is easily obscured. through simplicity so much is revealed.

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25 February 2008

what was meant


When the Academy of Arts demanded freedom

Of artistic expression from narrow-minded bureaucrats

There was a howl and a clamour in its immediate vicinity

But roaring above everything

Came a deafening thunder of applause

From beyond the Sector boundary.

Freedom! it roared. Freedom for the artists!

Freedom all round! Freedom for all!

Freedom for the exploiters!

Freedom for the warmongers!

Freedom for the Ruhr cartels!

Freedom for Hitler's generals!

Softly, my dear fellows...

The Judas kiss for the artists follows

Hard on the Judas kiss for the workers.

The arsonist with his bottle of petrol

Sneaks up grinning to

The Academy of Arts.

But it was not to embrace him, just

To knock the bottle out of his dirty hand that

We asked for elbow room.

Even the narrowest minds

In which peace is harboured

Are more welcome to the arts than the art lover

Who is also a lover of the art of war.

Bertolt Brecht

(i admit to being saddened, confused, angry, at trying to reconcile in my head when a favorite artist also drew for hitler.)

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24 February 2008

picture this

without the middle class we'd have nothing to talk about. without the need for sources and sales potentials, we would never invaded, er..., engaged in trade practices with japan. the japanese artists themselves would not have created the prints since there would have been nobody to buy them.

and then as the prints
arrived to (accidentally) inspire all of europe and the world, shopkeepers with a savvy eye imported them to sell them to another middle-class population. and other shopkeepers saw the potential of these bright posters for wider commercial use, and contests were held to find talented young artists to create them for their goods. priester matches awarded their first prize to lucian bernhard and the rest is history.

off on the other side of the atlantic a new young art student arrived from italy, where he had been exposed to all of the new trends in arts and typo- graphy. it was the early 1920s and in upstate new york the photography magnate george eastman was about to open a theater. since the invention of threadable film, movies were booming and he thought he might even show them in his new space.

no poorly executed mass produced movie poster would satisfy him, however, and he too held a contest. yes, you guessed it; our new resident won.

batiste madalena was a genius. he did one of each pair here, and many many more. despite the fact that he is clearly utilizing styles and techniques the european (german, british) artists were, his creations were entirely distinct. with their brilliant and unique use of color, of contrasting out- lines, and of a truly rich flatness, his look was, and still is, entirely his own.

after four years of his creating on average one poster a day, the theater was sold to paramount; they thought differently about hand-done, painted posters. one rainy night, bicycling home for the day, madalena rode along the alley behind the theater and stopped in his tracks. overflowing in the large trash can he saw his posters, paint running and spattering to the ground.

how he must have felt as he gathered as many of them as he could; reports vary widely but approximately 25% of the originals were salvaged. he and his wife cleaned them, pressed them, restored them, and put them in the attic for the next 50 years.

when they were to be discovered, displayed, and given back, to some extent, to the middle class. there are two books, now playing, and movie posters, a hollywood library database, and tales told. i haven't seen this one, but find the other two limited in what they offer.

but not limited in the satisfaction they provide.

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