Tsuruya Kōkei: Modern Kabuki Prints Revised & Revisited
Asia Society Texas Center (ASTC) features the prolific talents of one of Japan’s leading contemporary print artists in the exhibition Tsuruya Kōkei: Modern Kabuki Prints Revised & Revisited, opening September 14. The exhibition will present a remarkable 77 prints by Kōkei, including all his kabuki actor portraits from 1984 to 1993, plus a collection of his meticulously rendered self-portrait. Only the second U.S. museum to host the exhibition, ASTC will also serve as its final American venue.
Kabuki, a Japanese theatrical artform pioneered in the early 1600’s by all-female troupes, was taken over by all-male troupes in the mid-1600’s. The actors performed multiple roles (of both genders) throughout a show, and this exhibition utilizes those layered issues of identity to explore broader questions of self-definition and representation.
“Kabuki actor prints have been a beloved genre in Japanese woodblock printmaking for centuries,” says Bridget Bray, ASTC’s Nancy C. Allen Curator and Director of Exhibitions. “We are delighted to present such a comprehensive view into the ways that Kōkei both reveres and reinterprets these portraits.”
Because the artist limited his editions to just a few dozen prints per design, such a complete collection is unprecedented and will represent a first in Texas. Though he is the son and grandson of painters, Kōkei was not trained as an artist and did not even attempt creating any art until the age of 32. However, once discovered by the head of the famous Kabuki-za Theater, Kōkei linked himself with the theater and began documenting the productions’ actors via woodblock print, prodigiously turning out new prints of a different actor every month. His prints were zealously collected by theater fans, and to guarantee the prints’ rarity, he destroyed his wood blocks after each show closed.
In addition to being self-taught, Kōkei diverged further from tradition by designing, carving, and printing his own work, foregoing studio assistants. He also used magnolia, which is much softer than customary wood block sources, and printed his work on extremely delicate ganpi paper.
Curated by Dr. Kendall Brown and marking the 30th anniversary of Tsuruya Kōkei's first solo show in the United States, the current exhibition will also trace the history of kabuki artwork, starting with historic prints by the enigmatic kabuki master artist Sharaku, who dazzled the Japanese public for less than a year (1794-1795) before disappearing. And more than two dozen modern and pop-culture pieces will illustrate the lasting influence of traditional kabuki.