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“The Actor’s Image”

At the Ellipse Arts Center to Feb. 24

Actors are honored for their skills but loved for their roles. Thanks to the illusion of intimacy conveyed first by cinema and then by TV, it’s now easier than ever to confuse the two: People who think they adore Tom Cruise actually prize the (taller and more easygoing) guy he usually portrays. Yet even some 150 years ago in a country not very much like ours, the actor and his trademark character were commonly entangled.

Thus, “The Actor’s Image” is a suitably ambiguous title for the show of 19th-century Japanese woodblock prints currently at the Ellipse Arts Center (where they’re installed with a haphazard selection of sculpture, kimonos, and even ikebana). These are not renderings of actors in Hollywood-fan-club-style poses, back- or offstage, looking relaxed, friendly, and benignly aristocratic. Instead, the prints show the Kabuki performers in representative roles, whether playing heroes or villains, men or women. (As on the Elizabethan stage, all Kabuki parts are played by men, although this wasn’t true in the form’s early days.) The artworks are depictions of both the actor and his image, given that Kabuki performers traditionally play only variations on the same role—they’re Cruises or Schwarzeneggers, not Philip Seymour Hoffmans.

This analogy may seem inexact. After all, Kabuki theater is not much like Hollywood filmmaking. It developed from bunraku (puppet theater), which explains the highly stylized movements and speaking and use of elaborate makeup, costumes, and masks: The performers aspire to the symbolic expressiveness of puppets. Kabuki is hierarchical, traditional, and ritualized—long-standing characteristics of Japanese society in general—and it stages and restages plays that are now hundreds of years old. Chikamatsu, Japan’s best-known classic playwright, died in 1725, roughly a century after Shakespeare.

In fact, Shakespearean theater is an apt analogy for Kabuki in its prime. Like its Elizabethan counterpart, Kabuki during the rule of the Tokugawa shoguns (1615-1867) appealed to the aristocracy and the burgeoning merchant class alike. Both Kabuki and Elizabethan theater were extremely popular yet faintly disreputable, with some actors moonlighting as prostitutes. Even today, the Kabuki-cho neighborhood is Tokyo’s center for strip shows, prostitution, and illegal pornography, although it now has more bowling alleys and movie houses than live theaters.

In 18th-century Edo (now Tokyo), actors and geishas became frequent subjects of artists who designed the prints known as

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ukiyo-e, pictures of the floating world (that is, the realm of temporary pleasures, whether aesthetic or sensual). Japanese theatergoers avidly bought and collected images of the well-known actors playing famed roles, which served as tributes to the performers and as tokens of such stories as Kanedehon Chushingura, a tale known in English by several titles, including The Treasury of the Loyal Retainers and The Loyal Forty-Seven Ronin. (This fable of the 47 samurai who avenged their dead lord and then committed ritual suicide has been filmed many times, and it could be as easily updated to the contemporary corporate world as Hamlet was last year.) Because the prints show actors in character, they resemble not portraits but movie stills.

There are many depictions of scenes from The Treasury of the Loyal Retainers in “The Actor’s Image.” Yet you needn’t know this drama—or any of the less famous Kabuki plays depicted—to appreciate the show. The best of the woodblocks are dynamic, exquisitely designed, and even witty. Prints like these caused a sensation when they arrived in Europe after Japan was opened to the West in 1853, spurring the development of what came to be known as “modern art,” and in many ways they seem remarkably modern even today.

Made between 1820 and 1865, the exhibition’s prints are products of the Utagawa School, the leading Japanese art studio of the time. Many Japanese-art scholars dismiss the woodblock portraits of the 19th century, a period whose most acclaimed printmakers were Katsushika Hokusai and Ando Hiroshige, who specialized in landscapes (albeit ones from which human activity is not excluded). And the stilted compositions and muddy colors of some of this show’s prints support the accepted scholarly judgment. Even these pieces are interesting for showing ukiyo-e’s origins in fabric design, however, and the better ones compare well with the work of such 18th-century masters as Utamaro.

The show’s star is Utagawa Kuniyoshi, the only other 19th-century Japanese printmaker who’s often included in the same company as Hokusai and Hiroshige. Yet the work of Utagawa Kunisada is equally vivid. In one way, the two are neatly opposed: Kunisada used a lot of black, whereas Kuniyoshi favored white. Either approach effectively sets off the muted colors typical of ukiyo-e prints, whose gray-blues and brown-reds can look dull without a strong contrast. Kunisada placed his figures against darkness, whether it’s the dark of night or the void of the wall into which one character—in the show’s most horror-flickish image—plasters the corpse of an enemy. The most striking of Kuniyoshi’s prints is a portrait of an actor who usually played villains, depicted on a white background and surrounded by fluid calligraphy. Although it’s reminiscent of Japanese printmaking’s origins in poster design, the print looks utterly contemporary: It stands ready to be ripped off for a CD cover.

The images of classic Japanese prints have been widely borrowed in the West, and their forceful compositions and exaggerated verticality are still features of manga (Japanese comic books) and the works of the many American imitators who have broken the little boxes of DC and Marvel Comics’ style since artist Frank Miller had an influential manga epiphany in the ’80s. Fans of Miller and his followers should be impressed by the most kinetic of these images, notably one in which a warlord on horseback leads his troops down an impossibly steep incline.

Strictly speaking, that print doesn’t belong in the show: The bits of real mountain and sea in the background clearly indicate that the action doesn’t take place onstage. Of course, the outdoor setting doesn’t provide an illusion of depth; although Japanese artists learned the basics of perspective from the Dutch—the only Europeans allowed to visit the country during the Tokugawa era—they kept their artwork flat. Indeed, most of the prints in this show scrupulously resist illusion, emphasizing that the waves, mountains, and suns behind the actors are painted theatrical backdrops.

These were the conventions of Tokugawa-period Japanese art, so perhaps it’s unwise to compare these prints to the trendy anti-realist tropes of 20th-century Western art. Still, ukiyo-e unknowingly anticipated color-field and pattern painting, stressing artifice and design over verisimilitude. For all its reverence for tradition, the style was playful and freewheeling, an expression of the high spirits of the middle class coming into its own under the nose of the declining aristocracy—and of Japanese art breaking free of its Chinese models. One brightly colored diptych of an artist rendering a landscape in the traditional monochromatic Chinese style brings to mind an obvious comparison with Lichtenstein’s Benday-dot remakes of works by the Old Masters. Indeed, though the prints in “The Actor’s Image” are postcards from a lost world, they’re Pop Art, too. CP