Drama through prints: Lyman Allyn woodblock print exhibit details Japanese Noh Theatre

July 8, 2018 GMT

When David Bowie donned his Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane personas in the 1970s, he called on Japanese designer Kansai Yamamoto to create costumes for his oft-memorable stage performances. From a black-and-white-striped, patent-leather, wide-legged pant suit, to a flowing white cloak printed with Japanese kanji characters, many of Bowie’s outfits were inspired by the traditional Noh and Kabuki forms of Japanese theater.

While both Noh and Kabuki have many similarities (employing slow-moving plotlines and evocative dance gestures to convey a story or themes, for instance), it was Noh Theatre that also inspired late Japanese painter and printmaker Tsukioka Kogyo to document the theater style — with its many costumes, face masks, and characters — over hundreds of woodblock prints made in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Koygyo’s work is featured in the exhibition “Noh Theatre in the Woodblock Prints of Tsukioka Kogyo,” on view at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum until Oct. 14. Supplementing that show are four traditional Noh Theatre masks pulled from the museum’s own collection.

″(This exhibition) really documents Noh. It teaches people about Noh Theatre, Noh scenes, Noh drama …,” says Annemarie Sawkins, a Milwaukee-based independent curator who envisioned and organized the show. “There are other collections of Kogyo prints that exist, of course, but this is a very nice collection to learn about this form of theater and of traditional Japanese art forms.”

The work presented in the show (over 50 woodblock prints) was culled from the private collection of University of Pittsburgh professors Richard and Mae Smethurst, both of whom studied and researched Japanese culture. Building on their fascination for Japanese art and Noh Theatre, the couple frequently traveled to Japan, where they began to collect Kogyo’s work. Though not first-edition prints, the works on view at the Lyman Allyn are reproductions of Kogyo’s work, made under his supervision by a woodblock printing team around the turn of the 20th century.

Besides documenting a then-dying theater form, Kogyo also helped, through his prints, to reignite interest in Noh Theatre in the Japanese middle and lower class as well as in an international context. Historically speaking, Noh was a form of theater typically observed by the Japanese elite since its inception in the 14th century.

Kogyo, Sawkins explains, had a way of intricately portraying the many masks, patterned costumes, and characters used throughout Noh Theatre, as well employing traditional Japanese artistic styles. His dramatic use of negative-space, off-center subject placing and tromp l’oeil-like approaches — standard Japanese techniques that later came to inspire work from western artists such as Vincent Van Gogh and Edgar Degas — helped characterize his work.

“Seeing these details within Kogyo’s prints is fascinating,” Sawkins says. “The textures depicted, and colors used, which include gold, silver, lacquer and mica, … (Kogyo) wasn’t just working with traditional woodblock techniques but also experimenting and adding new materials and really trying to showcase those new directions.”