The city of Edo, modern day Tokyo, Japan, experienced the rise of a new form of pop art in the period between the seventeenth and the twentieth centuries. Ukiyo-e, or woodblock prints, became all the rage because their mass production rendered them affordable to a broad audience. These prints were not the prize of royalty or nobles; they were manufactured to sate the visual appetite of townspeople. Ukiyo-e translates literally as “pictures of the floating world.” This concept refers to the realm of arts that includes kabuki and woodprints. The concept references the fleeting world of pleasure and enjoyment that allowed one to slip out of the mundane demands of quotidian life and into an evanescent escape from reality.

In the ten months lapsing between May 1794 and February 1795, a powerful figure emerged in the genre of ukiyo-e. As mysterious as he was prolific, Sharaku produced over 140 works in this period of activity and then disappeared behind the veil of history. Who was Sharaku? No one really knows. Some suggest he was an actor while others contend that he was a more-prominent artist experimenting with new styles behind an assumed alias. What we do know is that Sharaku was a rule-breaker. He denied convention and played to a developing taste for new art in Edo. As such, he stands as a model of inspiration to Japanese pop artists today.

In his own time, Sharaku’s avant-garde musings faded quickly in the public imagination. His work became more subdued, and demand for his art similarly quieted. Sharaku subsequently disappeared from the records of Japanese art. It took a later scholar, German Julius Kurth, to resurrect appreciation for the artist in 1910. From that time, Sharaku has held a lasting fascination with both Eastern and Western audiences.

This spring, the Tennessee State Museum offers Sharaku Interpreted by Japan’s Contemporary Artists. The show, which is sponsored by the Consulate-General of Japan and the Japan Foundation, takes part in the longstanding tradition of Sharaku’s art. The traveling exhibit hopes to resurrect Sharaku prints to a new audience and to breathe new life into his centuries-old art form. Like Sharaku himself, the show generates more questions than answers. It is edgy, and it is immersed in the pop art culture of modern Japanese design.

The exhibition features lush, vibrant, original copies of Sharaku’s prints alongside the output of eleven contemporary Japanese artists who have forged unique, thought-provoking meditations on his vision. Sharaku Interpreted includes eighty-one works divided into three sections: “Reproductions of Sharaku,” “Sharaku in Graphic Art,” and “Homage to Sharaku.”

The first section showcases Sharaku prints reproduced from the original woodblocks by the Adachi Institute of Woodcut Prints. Few Sharaku originals survive, and many have dulled in color. The rich and saturated hues of the reproductions are a treasure to all audiences. The second section showcases the work of twenty-eight graphic designers who explore the links between Sharaku’s visual elements and contemporary Japanese graphic design. Finally, the last section includes the painting, sculpture, and ceramic art of contemporary Japanese artists who respond to Sharaku’s prints in their own personal manner.

The result is a riveting journey through the history of Japanese prints from the polychromatic woodblock ukiyo-e of Sharaku’s time to the contemporary poster made for modern consumption. The old master’s prints capture the images of kabuki actors and actresses in character. These bust portraits are striking and dynamic with unusual freedom and playfulness in facial expressions.

The emotion and personal characterization of Sharaku’s original art set him apart from his peers. In Sharaku Reinterpreted, contemporary artists subtract key elements from Sharaku prints and let them play in their own imaginations. At times, we see compositions in which these elements are configured like the pieces of a puzzle. At other times, we see abstractions in which the original Sharaku inspiration is difficult to find. The common bond between all the works is their shared root in Sharaku’s seminal contribution and a stirring visual power.

The exhibit made its way to Nashville through a series of cultural collaborations that are changing the face of the State of Tennessee. In 2008, the Consulate-General of Japan moved its offices to Nashville. This particular branch of Japanese diplomacy serves the five-state region of Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee. The offices demonstrate the expanding partnerships between Japan and the Southern states of the United States.

Director of the Tennessee State Museum Lois Riggins-Ezzell says, “The genesis of the exhibition was the Consulate-General of Japan relocating to Nashville. This show is the Consul’s way of saying ‘we want to share our culture with you.’” She believes that the show “creates cultural opportunities and exchanges” and acts as an education model for cultural harmony: “The more we can look and understand, the more we can work together in a progressive way.”

Curator Mark Hooper sees the show as an exciting way to showcase the old and the new, saying, “This show is a contemporary presentation of the traditional.” Hooper has added his own touch to the exhibit by hand-constructing silkscreen walls and by arranging Sharaku prints and their contemporary counterparts alongside each other in a way that gives viewers a sense of the similarities and differences between them. Visitors can gaze at original prints and look directly across the room at massive oil-paint mutations of Sharaku’s portraits or digitized, fragmented explorations of the elemental components of his art.

Sharaku’s innovations brought new elements to a traditional form of print media. Sharaku Interpreted similarly offers new meditations on the time-honored story of his art. At the same time, the show celebrates the growing friendship between the Consulate-General of Japan and the City of Nashville and State of Tennessee, opening an exciting new chapter in the history of both city and state.

The show will be on view through April 11, 2010. It will be located in the Changing Galleries of the Tennessee State Museum. The exhibit will include an interactive component for children and is free to the public.

by Bernadette Rymes

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