Scholten Japanese Art presents

Strike a Pose: Spectacular Imagery of the Kabuki Theater

New York Asia Week, September 8 16, 2016, 11 am 5 pm
New York Print Week, November 1 5, 2016, 11 am 5 pm
otherwise by appointment through November 8th

view the online exhibition...
index of Part I exhibition...
index of Part II exhibition...

During the autumn Asia Week in New York, Scholten Japanese Art will present Strike a Pose: Spectacular Imagery of the Kabuki Theater.

This exhibition will display an array of imagery related to one of Japan's most distinctive, and yet possibly least understood, cultural exports: the kabuki theater. The exhibition focuses on ukiyo-e woodblock prints portraying popular actors in lavish costumes on stage as well as relaxing off stage. While kabuki-related subjects had significant visual influence on the West, the highly stylized nature of the theater and the complexity of much of the related imagery create a barrier (both in language and in visual cues) to understanding the underlying meaning of many compositions. In addition to identifying the actors, their roles and the plays we uncover hidden meanings and explore aspects of kabuki that are often overlooked or underappreciated in the West.

The term kabuki is comprised of three characters, ka (sing), bu (dance), and ki (skill), but it was derived from the term kabuku, which means 'to lean' as in leaning away from the norm, or out of the ordinary, bizarre. It was used in reference to a genre of entertainment that originated in Kyoto around 1600 by a female shrine dancer known as Izumo no Okuni who would perform dances and skits with a troupe of women while cross-dressing. Her outrageous and audacious style was considered kabuku, and was wildly popular, inspiring the establishment of competing troupes. Eventually, ensembles organized by brothels appropriated the format as a front for prostitution, prompting the shogunate to ban women from the stage in 1629. The female performers were replaced by wakushu (young men) who also engaged in prostitution, resulting in a ban on wakushu from the stage in 1652, thus firmly establishing the male-only tradition of the kabuki theater.

Kabuki spread to Edo, present-day Tokyo, and became a huge hit with several theaters offering performances every month affordable to many. The actors became stars much like movie actors are today and kabuki became the foremost subject of Japanese woodblock prints. Literally every performance was accompanied by some kind of print that aficionados could collect. Although the conservative Tokugawa government did not officially support kabuki, it was tolerated and occasionally patronized incognito by some members of the ruling class.

A triptych by Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825) from circa 1800 imagines the fandom amongst the higher-ranking class by showing female members of a wealthy (possibly samurai) household entertaining themselves in a classic display of fandom by acting out the most popular scene from the play, Kagamiyama (Mt. Kagami), a revenge story involving the ladies-in-waiting at a samurai mansion. Two beauties in the center panel take the lead roles: with the villainous overbearing Iwafuji standing triumphantly over the defeated loyal maid, Ohatsu, while her mistress, Onoe Matsu, sits stoically to the left. The other ladies in attendance watch the performance with intense interest, apparently caught up in the drama of the scene.

Up until the 19th century, most of the woodblock prints depicting kabuki subjects were produced in conjunction with specific productions in the theater at that time. In fact, we can reasonably date many prints to within a month, based on records of playbills and theater advertisements. And while actors were identifiable by the crests on their robes, and the roles would have been apparent to the purchaser who may have just seen the related play, today without further context it is often a struggle to identify the exact role or the play (many roles were repeated in a succession of related plays). Iconography of certain roles, including the hair (wigs), make-up, and clothing combinations often point the way, and by the late 18th century, props and even stage backgrounds were increasingly incorporated into the compositions. Print production was for the most part linked to theater production. This rare full-length portrait by Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1865) depicts the actor Nakamura Utaemon III in the female role of Mitsugi's Aunt Omine from ca. 1814. The actor and role are identified in the cartouche to the right, and the purchaser would certainly have been familiar with the play, Ise ondo ko no netaba (A Song of Ise: Love and a Dull Blade), a horror story about a cursed sword that once unsheathed compelled the bearer to seek out new blood. Here the onnagata (actor in a female role), holds the sword wrapped up in brocade protectively against her body with an expression of fear and worry on her face as she contemplates what to do with the possessed weapon.

By the early 19th century, print publishers devised new ways to expand the market by getting kabuki fans to buy more prints utilizing new production strategies. Increasingly prints were produced with images of kabuki actors as tastemakers in everyday life (celebrities- they're just like us!).

This triptych of a boy's night out gathering of a group of major and up and coming actors by Kunisada from circa 1822-25 offers a tantalizing image for a kabuki fan: imagine running into this gathering of handsome actors out for a jaunt along the Sumida River?

Prints generally depicted pinnacle scenes from a specific play or portrayed well-liked actors. This half-length portrait by Kunisada shows Ichikawa Danjuro VII, probably the most popular and influential actor of the 19th century, in the role of Obashi Yuranosuke, the heroic leader of the 47 Ronin from the play Chushingura (Treasury of Loyal Retainers). Half-length or bust-portraits were a convention introduced in the late 18th century and reflected a greater interest in capturing the likeness of specific actors. The kabuki fan-driven market for certain superstar actors must have been nearly insatiable when considering the tremendous volume of images that were produced.

Popular actors were depicted repeatedly, as publishers came up with increasingly complex premises to feed the demand. Some actors were fashion trend-setters and especially onnagata, actors specializing in female roles, were so highly refined that they were thought to embody the height of femininity and yet could still be regarded as sex symbols among their highly devoted female audience. This jewel-like small-format triptych by Kunisada from ca. 1825 features the extremely popular onnagata Iwai Kumesaburo II at center, flanked by two other dominating actors, Ichikawa Danjuro VII to the right, and Matsumoto Koshiro V to the left, as they walk along the Sumida River in snow. Again we have a view of actors out and about, engaging in every-day activities while showing off their sartorial splendor. The actor's names are not given, but fans would have recognized these kabuki stars. On the right, even with his face covered, the big eyes of Danjuro VII are unmistakable. On the left, the large hooked nose of 'Big Nose' Koshiro is the give-away. And at center, the onnagata wears the robe of a young unmarried woman, and in spite of the cold weather, bare feet in the style of a courtesan. The purple cloth (murasaki-boshi) worn by onnagata to cover the shaved pate is secured in place with a hairpin in the shape of Kumesaburo's crest.

A triptych by Utagawa Kuniyasu (ca. 1818-1830) from the 1820s, shows a popular summertime entertainment in Edo when pleasure boats would crowd the area around Ryogoku Bridge in order to enjoy the cooler temperatures on the water and watch firework displays. Three famous actors are in attendance: again Danjuro VII stands prominently in the center sheet, to his left the onnagata Segawa Kikunojo V is seated, and in the boat just beyond theirs is Nakamura Utaemon III. Their presence causes a bit of commotion, all eyes are turned in their direction, and even the laborers poling the boats away from each other seem to be scrambling to catch a glimpse of the stars.

Publishers also began producing serialized prints, which of course would encourage fans to buy more prints in the same series. Serialization allowed publishers to produce prints without being tied to a theatrical production. A series could be organized around other themes, opening the door to endless creative combinations. This rare double half-length portrait by Kunisada is from the series Mitate Kyogen (Imagined Performances) from ca. 1823-24 in which the artist presents an imaginary combination of actors in roles that they never played together.

Recent publications in English have helped to unlock some of the most elusive pictorial puzzles and word games employed by artists and publishers to reward kabuki fans for their ability to decipher the meaning and keep them hooked on both patronizing the theater and collecting their images. One ambitious and complex series produced by Kunisada in 1852 is known as the Yakusha Tokaido (Actor Tokaido), a series of half-length portraits of actors against images of scenic views along the Tokaido which allude to Utagawa Hiroshige's first Tokaido series published by Hoeido and Senkakudo from ca. 1831 and with stage props related to the role decorating the edges of the title cartouche. The construct, of an actor in a role juxtaposed against a Tokaido location that usually was relevant to the play provided a way to circumvent sumptuary restrictions which had been in place since the early 1840s against portraying people from real life, especially actors and courtesans. However some connections remain mysterious, such as the relevance of the location of Suzuka Pass on the Tokaido to the image of the actor Bando Shuka I in the role of the bandit Kijin no Omatsu (also known as Omatsu the Demon God) excitedly measuring the length of her blade.

Another series produced in the same year, Comparisons for Thirty-Six Selected Poems, goes further in challenging the literary sophistication of the audience by incorporating classical poems with tangential allusions to an actor against a landscape background, such as this print depicting Ichikawa Danjuro VIII as the Ghost of the Monk Seigen in comparison with a poem by the 9th century poet, Ariwara no Narihira.

After a boom in producing thinly veiled images of actors, the restrictions eased and publishers returned to producing prints which could identify specific actors, roles and plays. A triptych from 1855 captures some of the kabuki magic that kept the audiences so enthralled: a view of a scene from a play in which the actor Ichikawa Kodanji IV simultaneously plays the role of two different ghosts emerging from the surface of a folding screen while the actor Ichikawa Kodanji IV tries to fight the phantoms off with his sword and the onnagata Iwai Kumesaburo II cowers at the sight.

Starting in 1860 Kunisada began a monumental series of deluxe okubi-e (big head portraits) of actors in famous performances during their lifetimes. Kunisada was helped by another Utagawa school artist, Yoshitora (active ca. 1836-1887) and 72 of the 150 planned designs were published including this portrait of Morita Kanya XI in the role of Saito Tarozaemon Toshiyuki and the previously illustrated Ichikawa Shinnosuke IV as Nagao Saburo Kagekatsu from 1863.

When Japan opened up to the West in the Meiji Period, kabuki experienced an interesting renaissance, as Western art and sensibilities were rapidly imported and adapted in all aspects of life, playwrights and actors explored new stories, including introducing modern dress and Western plays. Exported imagery of kabuki to the West has had a tremendous visual impact beginning with the rage of Japonisme in the late 19th and early 20th century, even if the vast majority of the meaning was lost to viewers. Kabuki continued to dazzle into the 20th century, and now, competing with photography, artists worked in new styles including the shin hanga (new print) movement exploring realism while continuing to depict the classic roles that are found on the stage even today. A portrait by Natori Shunsen (1886-1960) from 1926 of the actor Nakamura Utaemon V as the complex character, Yodogimi, from the Hoshiigura scene of the play Hototogisu kojo no rakugetsu (A Sinking Moon Over the Lonely Castle Where the Cuckoo Cries) is based on a performance staged the previous year in June of 1925 and captures a particularly twisted expression on the actor's face that is more menacing and haunting than an extant photo of nearly the same moment.

A painting in the exhibition by Torii Kotondo (1900-1976), an artist more famous (particularly in the West) for his gorgeous shin hanga images of beauties, reveals his traditional training as the head of the Torri school (closely aligned with kabuki since the 18th century) in depicting one of the most famous kabuki images of all- an actor in the climatic Shibaraku (Wait a moment!) scene which was 'owned' by the Ichikawa Danjuro line of actors.

The exhibition will feature over 70 woodblock prints supplemented by a few paintings, including a very rare kabuki signboard by Torii Kotondo (1900-1976) from the collection of the artist Paul Binnie (b. 1967). The majority of the prints will be by the most prolific kabuki artist of the 19th century, Utagawa Kunisada (Toyokuni III, 1786-1865); there will also be works by his teacher, Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825), his contemporary Utagawa Kuniyasu (1794-1832), his students Utagawa Yoshitora (active ca. 1836-1887) and Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900), and 20th century artists including Natori Shunsen (1886-1960), Yamamora Koka (Toyonari, 1885-1942), Shin'ei (dates unknown) and Paul Binnie, with paintings by Kitano Tsunetomi (1880-1947) and Torii Kotondo.

The viewing will open on Thursday, September 8th, and continue through Friday, September 16th. An online exhibition will be posted in advance of the opening at Scholten Japanese Art, located at 145 West 58th Street, Suite 6D, is open Monday through Friday, and some Saturdays, 11am - 5pm, by appointment. To schedule an appointment please call (212) 585-0474.

For the duration of the Asia Week and Print Week segments of the exhibition, September 8 – 16, and November 1- 5, the gallery will have general open hours (no appointment needed), 11 am to 5 pm; and thereafter by appointment through November 8th.


Scholten Japanese Art is open Monday - Friday, and some Saturdays by appointment only

Contact Katherine Martin at
(212) 585-0474 or email
to schedule a visit between 11am and 4pm preferably for no more than two individuals at a time.
Visitors are asked to wear face masks and practice social distancing at their discretion.

site last updated
September 22, 2022

Scholten Japanese Art
145 West 58th Street, suite 6D
New York, New York 10019
ph: (212) 585-0474
fx: (212) 585-0475