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I had the opportunity to attend the USC Pacific Asian Museum in Pasadena. The art piece chosen was titled as Cut-Up Block for Bando Mitsugorō IX as Ukiyo Matahei Made into a Frame. The artwork was created by an artist renowned for their Kabuki art, Tsuruya Kōkei. The piece was produced in the country of Japan on October 1987. The subject matter represented is that of an exaggerated full-length image of famous Kabuki actor Bando Mitsugoro IX. The artist created the piece after Mitsugoro’s work on a play performed at the Kaabuki-za, in September 1987.
The medium utilized is through a Japanese woodblock print on Magnolia Oborata, which is also known as Magnolia Wood. It is a limited edition print, meaning Kōkei only created 72 prints. The dimensions of the piece are approximately 15 ¼”x 9 ¾.” The piece itself is vivid in color, bold hues of blue, red, yellow and shades of green adorn the featured actor’s garments. Strong, prominent lines create an illusion that the clothing drapes heavily amongst his enlarged, robust body.
Precise line work carved onto the facial area convey the minute facial features and details the actor expresses while performing. Exaggerated limbs and feet serve as focal points for the composition. His creation can be considered to be both two and three-dimensional in form. The woodcut image is surrounded by cut up pieces of the original woodblock to create a unique and fascinating ornamental frame. Kōkei purposely recycles and destroys the woodblock print in order to resist the pressure to reproduce the image again at a later date.
The Pacific Asian Museum was gifted the piece in 2018 by none other than Kōkei himself. In total, there were nine other gifts presented to the museum with at least one other item offered with the original gift itself.
Tsuruya Kōkei is a Modern Era artist, known for his detailed depictions of Kabuki actor prints. At the turn of the 20th century, many artists illustrated Kabuki portraiture with a more naturalistic approach. Very few artists such as Kōkei, continued to capture the actors’ gesticulations using embellished styles that emphasized the personality and emotions the actor attempted to create during the performance. Kabuki theatre can be considered one of Japan’s first forms of popular culture. Woodblock prints featuring famous Kabuki actors were a simplistic and effective form of media that could be easily be mass produced for a wide range of audiences. The origins of Kabuki were much different from what is the art form is recognized as today; it has gradually progressed over time. Kabuki, meaning “unusual” or “shocking,” is a form of Japanese musical theatre known for its extravagant costumes, vibrant stage make-up and stylized dancing and acting. These plays often characterized comical or dramatic situations of everyday life.
The very first performances were cast with all female groups who would cross-dress to portray the male roles. After women were banned from performing, cross-dressing male actors dominated the stage. In the early 17th century, the first Kabuki ensembles began their rise to popularity. A large population of early Japan looked to the rich art and cultural heritage the theatre offered as a form of public entertainment. They grew in notoriety and become highly esteemed for their cultural influence on Japanese society. It is in Kabuki that artists such as Kōkei become inspired to focus a majority of their work on the subject matter. There are several parallels seen in Kōkei’s art and the style of Kabuki. In many of the images he creates, he emphasizes the actor’s bodies, to symbolize the exaggerated dialogue and movements the actors performed. His compositions convey large images with very little empty space, perhaps to amplify the actor’s enduring stage presence.
During the Edo Period, Kabuki theaters were closely associated with ukiyo-e, or “pictures of the floating world.” The prints often depicted brothels, popular entertainment and beautiful women. Many of the self-indulgent images depicted in the prints reflect the interests and guilty pleasures of Japanese urban life. These admired works of art were synonymous with traditional Japanese woodblock printmaking. The kabuki theaters were one of the most important commissioners of woodblock prints. The subject matter in Kōkei’s print, Cut-Up Block for Bando Mitsugorō IX as Ukiyo Matahei Made into a Frame is that of famous actor Ukiyo Matahei. Matahei is credited as the founder of ukiyo-e art. Kōkei ensures that he create images true to his style but also keeping within tradition. He may hold this particular piece as a testament to his ability as a self-taught artist and perhaps a desire of acceptance into the lineage of legendary kabuki artists.
Kōkei’s inspiration for his Kabuki series arose from working off of drawings sketched days after observing the actors perform. Although some of his greatest accomplishments have been in the art world, he oddly enough did not purse an interest in it until the age of 32. Deeply invested in his cultural heritage, he powerfully presents the significant impact of Japan’s visual and performing arts on contemporary pop culture.
Kōkei was and continues to create art that is constantly evolving. The self-educated artist has been responsible for carving, printing, and publishing his work. Though he had a brief respite from creating Kabuki related art, he continues to create beautiful self-portraits and up until recently, returned to portraits related to ukiyo-e art. His exhibition at the Pacific Asian Museum was an interesting and informative look into Japanese culture.
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