Tuesday, 23 November 2010

David Bowie... Pop Goes Kabuki

Ukiyo-e artists have used kabuki, (traditional Japanese theatre) as subject matter for their woodblock prints more or less since its inception in the seventeenth century. David Bowie started experimenting with kabuki for his stage shows in 1973. By the time of his Aladdin Sane tour he was wearing actual kabuki costumes and using kabuki stage props and masks. The long extract below deals with Bowie’s debt to kabuki and is taken from the excellent “Ziggy Stardust Companion”.

"In the West, Japan was traditionally viewed as an 'alien' culture, at least in the way that it was represented in the tabloids. It was often crudely caricatured as an incomprehensible, rule-bound society in which ritual humiliation was the order of the day for its citizens. Bowie's Ziggy dignified Japanese culture and showed him open to ideas outside Anglo-American rock. Bowie helped internationalise pop, starting a long-running fascination with the East. The result of this kabuki appropriation, was a violent clash between the logic of the rock gig (connection and camaraderie) and that of kabuki theatre (stately though garish formality).

"The use of kabuki styles in rock performance was an innovation. Some of the costumes for the Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane shows were actually first used in kabuki theatre, others were designed for Bowie by Kansai Yamamoto, again based on traditional designs. The overall visual effect of these shows was that of a blurring of 'found' symbols from science-fiction space-age high heels, glitter suits and the like - with kabuki-style garments whose effect was to signify the codes of another culture, one alien to Western society. In the context of the times, Bowie's appropriation of kabuki theatre was, for a Western pop audience, in equal measure unsettling and fascinating. And kabuki was innovative and cool: for instance the Mawaributai - a revolving stage now a staple in some glitzy rock shows - was invented in Japan almost 300 years ago.

"In kabuki theatre, all parts, both men and women, are played by men. Its androgynous nature was elevated by Bowie to a position of fundamental importance. It was the kabuki aesthetic of visual excess, its garish though formal juxtaposition of colours, which attracted Bowie while he was drawing the Ziggy character. The heavily made-up red or gold lips, black eye-liner and blusher, set against the whitened pallor of the rest of the face, echoed the make-up used in kabuki theatre. The constant changing of costume, so evident in both the Ziggy and Aladdin Sane stage shows, also had its origins in kabuki. A change of kimono meant a change of personality."

The Toshidama Gallery has a new show devoted to kabuki performances and actor portraits, many of which foreshadow our contemporary delight in pop excess. The show runs until the new year.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Women and the Floating World


I guess it is to be both anticipated and regretted that the women of Japan who were once the great writers and poets and priestesses, not to say robbers and warriors of their culture, should have been reduced by the middle of the nineteenth century to the status of ornament and prostitute. They became ritualised and mimicked, exploited and feared, bound by convention... however, strong women - or at least the illusion of strong women - are still evident in the art of ukiyo-e; the Japanese woodblock prints of 18th and 19th century Japan.

More often than not, real women, powerful women, make an appearance in ukiyo-e art only as cautionary tales, or else as paragons of feminine virtue and piety. I’m thinking here of Kunichika’s series 36 Good and Evil Beauties... women to be revered as saints or feared as demons. But by far the most common depiction of women of the time is either in prints of the kabuki stage or as prostitutes... geisha or courtesans if you prefer. Both these models remain insincere. In the first instance because there were no kabuki roles for women and these prints, beautiful and seductive as they are, depict onnagata or female impersonators representing the female characters.

In the second case, the activities of the courtesans took place within the walled city of the Yoshiwara, a pleasure quarter not subject to the normal rules of society and living its own life, by its own clock and with often brutal consequences. The Yoshiwara, a sort of cross between the Vatican and the Reeperbahn had for centuries catered to the desires of men for mistresses, for theatre, for indulgence of any kind... it was only here and even then within strict codes of behaviour, that women could find leverage in an otherwise male society. In the art of ukiyo-e, as in so much Western art, real women are really only an illusion.


Illustrated here are Kunichika’s portrait of the “Evil Omatsu” from 36 Good and Evil Beauties; a woman who poisoned her wealthy husband. Below is Yoshitoshi’s “Thirty-Two Aspects of Customs and Manners: Looking itchy - The Appearance of a Kept Woman of the Kansei Era (1789-1801) Number 16.”

Friday, 12 November 2010

The Army beneath the Waves

We’re showing two prints in the current exhibition at the Toshidama Gallery which commemorate the battle of Dan-no-ura from 1185. This legend is part historical fact, part myth and part ghost story. Interestingly, it is also the subject of a debate about the laws of natural, (or unnatural) selection.

The sea battle was the culmination of a war that would decide who ruled Japan for the next seven hundred years. Two opposing factions, the Minamoto and the Taira (Heike) clans faced each other in fleets off the coast of Japan on April the 25th, 1185. The Taira had with them the seven year old Emperor and his family; the Minamoto were led by the legendary warrior Minamoto no Yoshitsune. The turning point in the ferocious battle came when a senior Taira general defected to the Minamoto and identified the ship containing the child Emperor Antoku and his family. The Minamoto archers turned their arrows on the flagship, sending it out of control. As the battle turned against them, sensing defeat, Antoku and his grandmother jumped to their deaths saying, "in the depths of the ocean we have a capital;" followed shortly by their loyal Taira samurai.

The Taira threw the crown jewels overboard with them. The royal sword was never recovered. At the close of the engagement, the warrior Taira Norimori placed a heavy anchor on his armour and followed the rest into the sea. Norimori, clutching the anchor is a popular and enduring image of this encounter.

The defeat signaled the end of the Empire and the imposition of the Shogunate until 1868 when the Meiji Emperor was restored, though the child-emperor beneath the waves has continued to be revered up to the present day.

It is said that the Taira ghosts still haunt the sea and the site of the battle is host to a particular species of crab, the Heike crab, named after the old royal family. As you’ll see from the picture, the shells of these crabs bear an uncanny resemblance to the face of a Samurai warrior. We’ve put in a link to a video by Carl Sagan that nicely proposes that the crabs have developed this startling look through human selection... in other words, since the most visible ‘Samurai’ crabs are thrown back into the sea through fear of the Taira ghosts, it is these mutations that get to prosper.