|index of the exhibition|
anonymous, school of Matabei
Kan'ei Era (1624-1644)
Okuni Kabuki (Female Kabuki)
six-panel screen: ink, color, gofun and gold leaf on paper
painting: 20 3/4 by 77 1/8 in., 52.8 by 196 cm.
overall: 25 3/8 by 81 1/2 in., 64.6 by 207 cm.
The small screen depicts a lively scene in the entertainment district of Kyoto against a ground gold leaf. The composition is divided diagonally by a fence running from the upper left to the lower right, separating spectators enjoying a performance from a multitude of figures on a busy street. At the upper right, the open front of a teahouse permits a view of activities of the pleasure quarters. Two trees with pale pink blossoms, one tree top at the lower left, the other reaching beyond the top edge at the center, let us know this is the season of hanami, cherry blossom viewing, the impetus for the festival-like atmosphere.
The single female performer, with her distinctive accessories, indicates this is a depiction of Izumo no Okuni, the celebrated miko (shrine maiden) credited for originating the kabuki theater. History, legend and myth are blurred in accounts of this remarkable individual. The most familiar version identifies Okuni as a miko from the great Shinto shrine, Izumo Taisha, in the Shimane Prefecture. Apparently she began performing to raise funds for the shrine, and brought her show to the banks of the Kamo River bed near the bridge at Gojo in 1603. With a small troupe of musicians and performers, Okuni synthesized a unique performance based on the Nembutsu-odori, a ritual prayer dance invoking Amida Buddha, but presented in a highly suggestive way. She also incorporated songs, skits and furyu-odori (risqué improvised dance in vogue in this era) into the show. These performances were wildly popular, and became known as kabuki odori, derived from the word kabuku, a slang term for eccentric or outlandish behavior (see Jackie Menzies and Edmund Capon, Japan: Masterpieces from the Idemitsu Collection, p.48).
Okuni's shows quickly inspired imitators. The brothel-owners organized their own performances known as onna (female) kabuki on stages located on the Kamo River bed in Kyoto's Shijo district, an unlicensed and unregulated area where a variety of entertainments were available to people of all classes of society. A front for illegal prostitution, onna kabuki was eventually banned in 1629 by the authorities. Wakashu (young man) kabuki took its place for a time, before that too was recognized as a front for male prostitution and thus banned by the authorities in 1652. Henceforward, kabuki was performed exclusively by men.
To right of the entrance, five men are seated on a raised platform enclosed with white cloth curtains decorated with fujimon (wisteria crest). While three of the men, perhaps patrons or sponsors of the troupe, are rather relaxed, the other two are acting as barkers to call people to the performance. One wears a red kerchief on his head, perhaps to dampen the noise of his large drum. The other announcer, holding bamboo clappers, wears a wild red wig, perhaps in the guise of a shojo (a mythological creature with a strong weakness for sake). The fujimon on the curtains is apparently associated with Okuni, her troupe, or early kabuki in general, as it is found in a number of paintings depicting performances. See for example a screen dated to circa 1610 in the collection of the Suntory Art Museum in Tokyo illustrating celebrated places in Kyoto (Christine Guth, Momoyama, cat. no. 30, p. 121).
The music of the shamisen players provides accompaniment for a group of seven lovely fan dancers nearby. The young beauties may be itinerant performers, or associated with a teahouse or brothel. Their graceful movements have captured far more onlookers than the sumo match around the corner. Toward the upper left, several men have paused to watch the dance, concealing their identities behind their sleeves. Presumably these men are samurai, self-conscious that they should not be indulging in the pleasure quarters. Others are not so mindful of their position; throughout the screen several men carrying daisho are boldly enjoying themselves. One elegant dandy near the dancers holds a shamisen languidly across his shoulders. Another to the right, apparently rather inebriated, is being helped along by a beauty.
In front of the teahouse, a pair of sumo matches are simultaneously underway in the middle of the street. Judging from the relatively lean physiques of the men, and the apparent disinterest of most of the people passing, perhaps these are amateurs in an exhibition match. Two men standing on the side appear to be arguing about some matter related to the wrestlers. To the right, a mounted samurai arrives with his standard bearer before him. In the lower right corner, a group of three men with long swords are running away. It is unclear what misdeeds these ruffians may have committed, however, to the left, a group of ladies, their rank indicated by an attendant shading them with a red umbrella, appear rather distraught.
The artist's attention to these details reflects the Edo period populace's shifting interest in themselves, and in particular, in enjoying themselves. By the middle of the previous century, artists began to produce screens depicting panoramic views of Kyoto, called rakachu-rakugai (views in the city, views outside the city). As city merchants became increasingly influential, their interest in their metropolis was reflected in these screens. The bird's eye views of the city displayed identifiable temples, castles, and districts separated by stylized gold clouds. On the streets, hundreds of figures representing all levels of society were illustrated. Rakachu-rakugai screens were popular and continued to be produced by machi-eshi (town painters, usually without formal training) even into the 18th century. However, by the early 17th century a new, closer perspective on people was developing. Genre screens depicted amusements such as horse racing, cherry-blossom and autumn maple viewing, and a variety of views of the pleasure quarters. Entertainers, bath-house maidens, tea house waitresses, and courtesans were the fashion plates of the day. Chonin, the merchant class, who enjoyed influence and wealth under the previous regime, were now reduced to the lowest level on the social hierarchy. Some managed to maintain their wealth, and had the means to indulge themselves. Just as an interest in the decorative arts thrived from their sponsorship (as evidenced in the rise of the Rimpa school), fashion, entertainment, and the other trappings of the pleasure quarters flourished under their patronage.
With time, this spotlight on the world of the courtesan in genre screens would become more focused on the figure, without architectural and landscape settings and compositional devices such as stylized gold clouds. The figure becomes the ultimate fashion plate, emphasizing individual women (and men) in beautiful clothing against a plain ground of gold. Facial features become stylized and idealized while clothing and body language become a decorative motif. This gives rise to the bijin, the idealized beauty central to the world of ukiyo-e (lit. floating world) woodblock prints which would emerge in the later part of the 17th century and have enormous impact on Edo period culture.
As such, it would seem these paintings are the product of the same studio, perhaps executed within a decade of each other. The Funaki Bon has been dated to after 1614 based on certain architectural details, and attributed to the hand of Iwasa Matabei (1578-1650) or an early Matabei school painter (see Tokagawa Art Museum, Early 17th Century Genre Paintings: The World of Lively Entertainments, p. 126, illus. pp. 10-17). Not surprisingly, this Okuni Kabuki screen has also been attributed to Iwasa Matabei (see Elise Grilli, The Art of the Japanese Screen, p. 237). Indeed, the lively composition with bright colors and animated, somewhat heavily joweled figures is characteristic of a style of genre painting associated with the Matabei style of ukiyo-e painting.
Mr. & Mrs. Bumpei Usui, New York
Mr. and Mrs. Leighton Longhi, New York
S. Yabamoto, Tokyo
Elise Grilli, The Art of the Japanese Screen, 1970, p. 237, illustrated plate no. 132 (detail)
Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; IBM Gallery of Science and Art in collaboration with the Japan House Gallery, New York; and the San Francisco Museum of Art, Tokyo: Form and Spirit, 1986.