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Noh splendor and the prints of Tsukioka Kōgyo

Japanese traditions at Villa Terrace

Aug. 19, 2014
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The Japanese art of Noh theater may be a somewhat esoteric subject, but that does not lessen the sheer pleasure of the exhibition, “Noh Theatre in the Woodblock Prints of Tsukioka Kōgyo,” on view at the Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum.

Noh combines the performing arts of acting, singing, music and dance, along with elaborate costumes and often mythical stories. One might draw comparisons to opera for a similar sense of drama. Noh productions are just as theatrical with tales of romance, revenge, salvation and other themes that reach deep into the human experience and play out characters in real and supernatural form.

The artist Tsukioka Kōgyo (1869-1927) is best known for his woodblock prints depicting scenes and characters from Noh theater. He adopted this subject matter after being introduced to this performing art in 1883, and noted that it complemented his vision of making art with distinctly elegant figures. One example is a composition from the famous play Dōjōji, which captures the moment where the protagonist, a young woman named Kiyohime, dances before a group of Buddhist priests. In the upper corner of the composition, Kōgyo includes a diagram that the dancer’s steps will take on stage, and a fearsome mask representing the serpentine character she will become. This installation is augmented with a video of Dōjōji in performance, accompanied by a reproduction of a Kōgyo painting of the transformed girl where her tender, masked visage becomes a supernatural beast.

Particularly for the protagonist or shite (pronounced SHE-tay), the Noh mask offers a shorthand for the type of character portrayed. The costumes are typically elaborate and augmented by other essential accessories such as wigs, and fans. Kōgyo deftly crafts a tangible sense of tactile complexity through eloquent patterns and colors. Gold and sliver, as well as raised lines accent his delicate works on paper, to which digital and printed reproductions do scant justice. The physical beauty of the more than 50 pieces in the exhibition makes a visit worthwhile not only for the visual splendor, but also an introduction to the exquisite aesthetics of Noh theatre.

Noh Theatre in the Woodblock Prints of Tsukioka Kōgyo continues through Oct. 5 at the Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum, 2220 N. Terrace Ave.


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