Toshusai Sharaku. Segawa Kikunojo III as Oshizu, 1794. The Art Institute of Chicago. Clarence Buckingham Collection.
CHICAGO, IL.– The Art Institute is presenting an exhibition of Japanese prints by a mysterious 18th century Japanese artist whose identity is debated but whose output was remarkable for its innovation and imagination. Masterworks of Japanese Prints: Toshusai Sharaku will be on display through March 29, 2015, in Gallery 107.
Toshusai Sharaku produced about 150 designs in a 10-month period between the summer of 1794 and the early spring of 1795. Before and after this period, an artist by this name is unknown, and therefore, Sharaku’s identity has been a matter of much debate. The Art Institute has one of the best museum collections of Sharaku’s work in the world thanks to the early efforts of collectors Clarence and Kate Buckingham. Most of the prints in this exhibition entered the museum between 1925 and 1934 as gifts from the Buckinghams.
Sharaku’s earliest work consisted of 28 bust portraits of actors who appeared in the Kabuki plays presented at the three principal Edo (Tokyo) theaters starting in the fifth month of 1794. Each of these prints had a dark, shiny background made with a mineral silicate called mica. All of these early designs are bold portraits of actors in identifiable roles. After a few months, however, and as the peak of the Kabuki season approached, this format was abandoned and he began designing prints of two full-length figures. In many of these prints, white mica rather than dark mica is used. The technique of using mica became quite popular in the early 1790s but was later abandoned, perhaps due to governmental edicts. In his later prints, Sharaku turned to a yellow ground, smaller format for bust portraits.
This exhibition, organized by Janice Katz, Roger L. Weston Associate Curator of Japanese Art, contains examples of all of the types of prints mentioned above.
Also on view in a different gallery will be Blue Phoenix, a stunning pair of folding screens by Japanese artist Omura Koyo (1891–1983). These oversized screens present Koyo’s vision of a tropical scene complete with rare birds and exotic plants. Bright orange Flame of the Forest flowers form the backdrop for flashy pheasants with highly patterned plumage and blue heads. The work glows, not only because of the bright colors, but also due to the gold leaf that was applied to the underside of the silk on which the scene is painted. This pair of screens, Koyo’s masterpiece, was exhibited at a Japanese government-sponsored exhibition in 1921, where it garnered great praise and one of the coveted prizes.
Tōshūsai Sharaku. The Actor Ōtani Oniji III as Edobei, 1794. Clarence Buckingham Collection.