Sharaku Toshusai

Sharaku’s work is as brilliant as his life is mysterious. He worked just nine months, left 144 pictures and disappeared without trace. He may have been a No actor in the troupe of some feudal lord. His work consists of yakusha-e for the kabuki theatre, busts or full-length scenes featuring one or two figures, all sponsored and printed by Tsutaya Jūzaburō, the most successful publisher of the day. His typical pictures are okubi-e, with caricature-like heads against a dark or occasionally gradated kira background, bearing a distant resemblance to the work of Shunshō and Toyokuni. The expressions on the grimacing faces, often exaggerated to the point of grotesqueness, together with the drama suggests by the economical gestures, bring out well not only the character of the part being played, but also the individual features of the actor himself. Sharaku’s powerful draughtsmanship and his skilful use of colour-contrast exploit the whole gamut of technical possibilities available to the print artist. The idea that his super-realistic, often not exactly flattering portraits earned him the dislike of the public and the hatred of the actors is no more than a legend, though it does make his sudden disappearance more plausible. It is certainly true that the Japanese public were not prepared for Sharaku’s incisive realism or his psychologically well-founded caricature, which were both revolutionary in ukiyo-e art and may well have been responsible for his extremely brief career.

Sharaku Toshusai

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