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Kabuki-Actor Portraits by Tōshūsai Sharaku



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Between the summer of 1794 and early spring of 1795, an artist using the name Tōshūsai Sharaku produced around 150 prints representing Kabuki actors: a prolific display of innovation in a mere ten months.

Such prints were popular mementos for fans of the stage—serving as a very marketable type of image at the time—and most of Sharaku’s works featured unusual characters with exaggerated, almost comic expressions and awkward poses. His extensive output stopped suddenly, perhaps because his style’s popularity could not be sustained. Today, his identity remains debated in Japanese print scholarship.

The first works attributed to Sharaku depict individuals who appeared in the Kabuki plays presented at the three principal theaters in Edo (present-day Tokyo). These 28 prints are bold and realistic portraits of actors in famous roles, each set against a dark background that sparkles thanks to the application of mica, a mineral silicate. By late fall/early winter of 1794, however, as the peak of the Kabuki season approached, Sharaku began producing designs with two full-length figures apiece.

This exhibition contains prints from all stages of Sharaku’s short but generative career. Many were given to the museum by brother and sister Clarence and Kate Buckingham between 1925 and 1934. The Buckinghams’ early collecting efforts have made the Art Institute home to one of the largest and finest collections of Sharaku’s work.

Kabuki-Actor Portraits by Tōshūsai Sharaku is curated by Janice Katz, Roger L. Weston Associate Curator of Japanese Art, the Art Institute of Chicago.


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