Japanese prints of the XVIII –XIX century from the collection of the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts






actor pictures

Ukiyo-e are popular pictures of the everyday life of the urban class in the Edo period. Originally the word ukiyo was used to designate one of the Buddhist categories and could be translated as "world of misery" or "world of sorrow". At the end of the 17th century ukiyo came to mean the modern world, the world of earthly joys and pleasure. The creation of Japanese ukiyo-e prints reached its heyday at the end of the 18th century. The main figures in ukiyo-e prints came to be representatives of the third estate: courtesans, actors, sumō wrestlers, characters from Japanese plays and legendary heroes.

One of the most popular entertainments of urban life was kabuki theatre. In the large cities of Japan, such as Edo, Osaka and Kyoto, the various troupes were usually based in a specific district. The growing popularity of theatre furthered the development of the genre of theatrical prints. Apart from various kinds of prints promoting the theatre – posters, programmes, playbills with texts written in a special style – depictions of the actors themselves also became popular. They, like courtesans set trends in fashion. Audiences were interested not merely in portraits of actors in their various roles, but also in their lives off-stage (in so-called "green rooms"), their leisure pursuits and entertainments.

In the late-17th and early-18th centuries the Torii artistic dynasty came to the fore. It was headed by Torii Kiyonobu (1664-1729). The main subject painted by the artists of the Torii dynasty – kabuki theatre – is embodied in single-sheet prints depicting actors and in other varieties of woodblock prints associated with the theatre (such as posters and theatre programmes). Artists of the Torii dynasty made active use of technical innovations (beni-e and urushi-e). The best-known of Torii Kiyonobu's pupils were Torii Kiyomasu (1694-1716) and Torii Kiyomitsu (1735-1785). The artists of this dynasty created their own special style for the representation of actors – one-, two- or three-figure compositions portraying actors in striking theatrical poses against neutral backgrounds. For the artists of the Torii dynasty the main aim was to convey the atmosphere of the theatre, to capture actors at moments of dramatic climax.

What constitutes a special achievement in the history of Japanese prints is the art of Tōshûsai Sharaku (working in 1794-1795). In the course of a few months over 140 theatrical prints by that artist were produced at the workshop of the famous publisher Tsutaya Jûzaburō – portraits of kabuki-theatre actors in various roles: after that the artist suddenly disappeared from view. All his works reflect a high level of skill: the sharp delineation of character borders on the grotesque and the deliberately distorted proportions of the figures, gestures and facial features make the actors expressive to a rare degree. This enigmatic artist of true genius completely changed the concept of the theatrical print. Tōshûsai Sharaku created his own style for portraits of actors, lending their faces deliberately exaggerated expressions. Behind the thick layer of make-up, the beholder could glimpse not just the character of the dramatis personae, but that of the actor himself.

After Sharaku, artists of the Katsukawa dynasty began creating bust-length portraits (okubi-e) and in the second half of the 18th century they were leaders in the sphere of actor prints. The founder of the dynasty Katsukawa Shunshō (1726-1792) in his development of the actor print genre rendered two types of such prints popular: first grand portrait of actors in static poses against a background of stage curtains and, secondly, actors in dressing ("green") rooms – in an intimate setting not for strangers' eyes. Attempts to capture the inner world of an actor behind the mask of make-up is also typical for the work of other artists from the Katsukawa dynasty (Katsukawa Shunkō, Katsukawa Shunei) and their contemporaries (such as Ippitsusai Buncho).

In the 19th century, the Utagawa dynasty was to lead the field of theatrical prints. Utagawa Toyokuni (1769-1825), who headed the dynasty in the late-18th and early-19th century, was famous for his full-length portraits of actors against neutral backgrounds and also for his prints. Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1864), who headed the dynasty in the first half of the 19th century, used more complex compositions in his prints. This was also bound up with developments in the staging of kabuki plays. Sets had become more complex, involving landscape elements, 'trick' and illusory effects. Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861), another leading member of the dynasty, initially made actor prints but later became famous, first and foremost, as a creator of battle scenes and portraits of warriors.