Thursday, 30 June 2016

Myths of the Stage… The Fantasy of Kabuki Woodblock Prints and Ziggy Stardust


Hirosada. Arashi Rikaku II as Nippon Daemon, 1852
Having just acquired some lithographic printed photographs of the actor, Onoe Kikugoro V, (Baiko), I was struck by how different the reality of the stage is when compared to the mystical… the completely magical quality of the world that was created by the Japanese woodblock artists whose task it was to promote it. Easy comparisons I know, but judging the image at the top of the page, the outstanding triptych by Hirosada of Nippondaemon from 1852, with its dusty, impenetrable backgrounds and the illuminated brilliance of the costumes, set against the pedestrian reality of the Baiko photographs, it is hard to see the print as an illustration of a theatrical event. The print shines with an 'inner light' a thing not derived from a real lived experience at all in fact.


The Kabuki Actor Baiko
There are lots of reasons behind this which I want to try to unpick for my own benefit… if no one else’s!  The stage was an elaborate affair in Edo Japan. Theatres were large, with a long runway that led to the apron; the stage itself with its elaborate sets and often a revolving section with trap doors and other special effects, would have seemed remarkable. On top of the staging, there were also the dazzling costumes, towering wigs, huge casts of superstar actors and their families and melodramatic acting and lurid plots. It must all have been frankly overwhelming, and yet, judging from contemporary photographs and vintage shots from  the end of the nineteenth century, the effect would have ultimately been all too human. The stage cannot have helped look hand-made; the actors quite human and the props quite ordinary.

A Contemporary Kabuki Performance
This sound harsh, but the same shortcomings are evident in all staged productions whether it is the Lion-King in the West End of London or A Street Car Named Desire on Broadway. Art - that great transforming process - can take these attempts at fairy-land and make them into something that I think really is transformative. It is not only with the theatre or with even the Japanese theatre that this might be the case. Performances in the end are all about making up, as such they are bound by the limitations of the human form, the ability of the costumier and the vision and stage craft of the designer. The artist isn’t bound by any of that. When Baiko played a god, he may well have been peerless on the stage but he would have remained all too human. When Kunichika made prints of Baiko, playing a god, he would have had literally no constraints.

In the current exhibition at the Toshidama Gallery, the bulk of the triptychs are of stage performances, but only in one or two prints do we see anything that even remotely resembles a theatre stage, let alone a theatre space. In Hirosada’s print of the play Shigure no Karakasa, we can see the shapes and construction of the stage, but in the bulk of the prints it would be nearly impossible to guess that these were pictures of the theatre, as in Kunisada’s supernatural Scene with Actors Seki Sanjuro II and Ichikawa Monnosuke III from 1825. We are presented here with a hybrid: recognisable actors in mythical or historical roles, playing a part in an imaginary world, somewhere in another reality… but clearly NOT the reality of the local playhouse.
Hirosada, Shigure no Karakasa, 1851.

Kabuki theatre artists very quickly began to cross the thin line between portraying theatre as it was and drawing something that was purely from the imagination. It’s in this marginal, twilight world between what actually was and what might have been or indeed could still be, that much of the brilliance of ukiyo-e thrives.


Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) Supernatural Scene, 1825
I’m not picking here on the poor old kabuki stage… I recall the release of David Bowie’s album Ziggy Stardust in 1972, I was in my early teens and was transported as much by the mysterious and brilliant cover art as I was by the content of the songs… all those longings for an extra-terrestrial saviour who promised sex and dancing rather than evensong and confession. But the artifice of the cover was beautiful and clever in just the same ways… with just the same leaps of painterly licence and imagination which put it on a par with theatrical ukiyo-e prints. The image of David Bowie on a dim lit street in Soho, London, exactly (at least to my mind) evokes the mysteries of say, an Osaka triptych by Hirosada.

Ziggy Stardust
 The picture itself is similar in its construction to an ukiyo print. The photograph was taken by Brian Ward in 1972 on a street called Heddon Street in Soho. It is a manipulated black and white image… polarized to increase the contrast between the black outlines and the white, empty spaces… much the same as the key block on a woodblock print. Similarly, the white areas were then coloured in, in ink, by hand… a brush here rather than a woodblock, but the effect is much the same.

The result is a mysterious, jewel like and beautiful, trans-formative, image. The everyday is transformed into the numinous, the magical… the other. So it is with Japanese prints. The theatre stage may well have transformative effects on the audience, but the prints of the action transform the event, the moment into another, other worldly thing. It is a magical and alchemical act. David Bowie described his look in 1972 as, ‘a cross between Nijinksy and Woolworth’s’. This might be a good way to describe much of what contemporary kabuki theatre appears to be, especially to us in the west. Kabuki theatre artists such as Kunisada would have been aware of that and would have developed techniques and drawing styles that conveyed the actors in a flattering way.

Bowie and Baiko
The photographs below show the back cover as it was released but also the street as it is now...
the numinous, magical space is absent in the latter.





Again comparing the outstanding portraits of Kunisada’s late series of actor heads with what we know of actors from photographs of the time, we see the same transformation going on that we can see in the manipulation of the stage space in the triptych prints.






















It is interesting to compare the images here of kabuki actors with the prints that purport to show them in performance. Again, the humdrum world of stage paint and hasty stitched clothes, of dirty feet and grubby leggings… the whole sweaty crotch business of the stage, be it Shakespeare or kabuki, David Bowie or Pantomime is dissolved and what we see in these glorious panoramas is the theatre as it might be… in our minds as we drift of to sleep, in our dreams or in our fantasies. There is more though that is going on here, there is an exploration of what it is to be sentient and human, of what it is to long for, to desire, to love and to want… all of it expressed with an aesthetic that is almost impossible to fault. A clarity and a beauty that leaves the material world behind, a world where the cost of an album or a print is irrelevant to the mystery and the wonder that these objects, these small magical events can provide.

Just a Minute! (Shibaraku)