Artists depict the world of Kabuki

In many ways, watching the Japanese Kabuki theater is like witnessing a succession of paintings that become animated on stage. The emphasis on the visual is indeed impressive in this type of theater whereby movement, costumes and set design are fully stylized and carefully orchestrated in one tightly integrated whole. In fact, Kabuki theater developed alongside a form of visual arts, particularly that of woodblock prints whose initial intention was to illustrate the actors of the Kabuki theater and disseminate this art form among the people. The world of Kabuki therefore became, from the very start, inextricably linked with a world of visual imagery and the medium of woodcut prints. Actors, together with engravers and painters, all of the same social class, became collaborators in what was a multifaceted artistic expression. An exhibition of rare Japanese rare woodcut engravings and Kabuki theater costumes which is being held at the Athens Concert Hall on the occasion of the Kabuki theater performances that took place last week, also at the Megaron, illustrates this interdisciplinary aspect of Kabuki. The title of the exhibition is «Ukiyo-e,» which literally means «floating world» and is the name used to denote woodblock prints of the Kabuki that became known worldwide. The Megaron exhibition, curated by Effie Andreadi and organized by the Greek-Japanese Chamber of Commerce on the initiative of its director Katerina Katopis, includes works by seven eminent Japanese artists. They date from the 18th to the late of the late 19th centuries, which was the heyday of the Ukiyo-e. Just like Kabuki (a form of theater which, unlike the earliest No, was the popular culture of the townspeople and not of the higher social classes), Ukiyo-e emerged at the end of the 17th century and is associated with the Edo period of the Tokugawa dynasty (17th-19th centuries). Initially the woodblock prints were made of black and white contours and color was applied by hand, a technique which changed with the gradual advancement of printing techniques. Subject matter varies in the Ukiyo-e but, in general, the more regularly recurring images include portraits of actors in scenes from daily life (the prints originally served as posters for Kabuki theater), and topics taken from the world of pornography and courtesans. Nature and beautiful young women – the geisha in particular, which in Japan were highly cultivated women – abound in those woodblock prints. Considering that Kabuki theater is exclusively performed by male actors who have become trained in female roles and in mimicking a woman’s movement, manner of speech and comportment, the prevalence of images of women may seem like a paradox. The depiction of the geisha and the courtesan was pioneered by Kitagawa Utamaro, one of the most famous artists of the late 18th century and one of the seven whose woodcut prints are on display at the Megaron exhibition. His images are singled out by their care for detail, their elegant depictions of young women, and their refined sophistication and sense of contained composure. Seen next to Utamaro’s prints, the lively, strong colors and animated scenes painted by Toyokuni III burst with energy and are more about movement than pose, more about action than portraiture. Each of the artists presented at the exhibition works in a particular style and a comparison between those styles is one of the most interesting aspects of the exhibition. Despite the differences, however, certain recurring features, such as the flatness of the composition and the emphasis on stylization, point to common cultural origins. It is a style that had an immense influence on Western art during the late 19th century. Van Gogh, Toulouse Lautrec, Monet, Maurice Denis and Paul Gaugin were all fascinated by Japanese woodblock prints and employed many of their stylistic features in their art. (Effie Andreadi’s text in the supplementing catalog maps out this influence.) Through the work of those artists and the so-called trend of Japonisme, the Western public became familiarized with a distant culture. The exhibition at the Athens Concert Hall prompts the viewer to consider such cross-cultural influences. Its principal effect, however, is to help open up a fascinating, largely unknown and complex culture to Western eyes. «Ukiyo-e: Images of an Ephemeral World» is on display at the exhibition space of the Athens Concert Hall (Vassilisis Sofias & Kokkali, 210.728.2000) through 30/11. The exhibition is sponsored by Folli Follie and Sony. Greek-Japanese relations «Ukiyo-e» is organized by the Greek-Japanese Chamber of Commerce which was founded around three years ago with the intention of advancing Greek-Japanese relations through the promotion of investments, export and import as well as cultural events. Director of the chamber since the very start is Katerina Katopis, a young woman who has lived in Japan where she worked for the prestigious Japan Bank for Industrial Cooperation (formerly known as Export-Import Bank of Japan). In the area of investments, the Greek-Japanese Chamber of Commerce aims at encouraging Japanese investment in windpower and other natural sources of energy in Greece. Also active in the area of culture, the Greek-Japanese Chamber of Commerce has organized various events of cultural exchange both in Japan and Greece. The «Ukiyo-e» exhibition and the Kabuki theater performances are the most recent initiatives within a broader cultural project.