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An unusual scene

It was time to take a trip back to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford recently to look at its most recent Japanese exhibition entitled ‘Kabuki Legends’. It’s an exhibition focused on the work of the Japanese artist Hiromitsu Takahashi who uses the process of stencilling to create truly vivid prints, in a process known as kappazuri. 

The term kabuki comes into play because the primary subject matter in each piece of art is the depiction of various scenes and characters found within kabuki theatre. (kabuki is a type of Japanese theatre that uses dance and elaborate costumes in its storytelling and dramatic performances. 

It’s an art form that is both rarely seen but also rarely produced, and so the chance to see some examples — albeit a fairly small selection — is very welcome. 

Let’s take a look at what you can expect from this exhibition that sticks around until the 4th of February 2024.

A visual tale

Stepping into gallery 29, a wash of colour pulls your eyes in every direction. While this is not a trait accredited to all kappazuri art, you quickly learn it certainly seems to be a trait of Hiromitsu’s work. It’s a trait that bears resemblance to the more well-known form of ukiyo-e, which also is renowned for its bold blocks of colour, however, the prints found here are on a much larger scale.

This allows us to take in and appreciate each piece, more so than maybe other forms of Japanese artwork, but what may be surprising is the prints themselves are really only part of the exhibition — the other part is the value of each print’s accompanying description and insights which prove to be invaluable.  

Let’s look at our first example:

Pulling the Elephant by Hiromitsu Takahashi
Pulling the Elephant © Hiromitsu Takahashi/The Tolman Collection

This is the print entitled ‘ Pulling the Elephant’. By itself, it’s an impressive piece of artwork that captures a stylised relationship between a seemingly out of proportion elephant and its rider. However, the accompanying text sets the scene of the particular kabuki play that this print derives from and gives a wider context of what is occurring. 

Here is the extract:

“Strongman Gennaizaemon sits on an elephant that has been sent as a gift from the emperor of China to the emperor of Japan. The villainous courtier Soga no Iruka has put a spell on the elephant to make it obey his commands and help him raise a rebellion, so Gennaizaemon tries to pull the elephant away from Iruka, in a dramatic tug of war scene.

With this information in mind we can now return to looking at the piece with a new perspective. 

We can now understand several things: why the proportions are as they are, as well as, what the kabuki character is trying to do and the situation that has led to the current scene. Having this contextual certainty, for me, really adds a sense of immersion and is akin to the imagery produced when reading a good book.

Age is relative

One thing that strikes you almost immediately is how modern Hiromitsu’s work is. All of the pieces on display were produced either just a couple of years before or after the new millennium, with one being as recent as 2015. 

Take a look at another one of the prints on display, this one entitled ‘Otokonosuke under the floor’:

Otokonosuke under the floor by Hiromitsu Takahashi
Otokonosuke under the floor © Hiromitsu Takahashi/The Tolman Collection

This piece was produced in 1995. 

It’s surprising as the work gives off a very traditional and historic Japanese feel that gives the impression of being much older. This could be in part down to the theme of kabuki which itself is a traditional and historic practice that has been covered in Japanese art for many centuries, yet, the very process of kappazuri and Hiromitsu’s dedication to it likely plays a large part. 

Sure enough, the exhibition gives us a brief insight into how kappazuri is made as well as the origins of its practice and suddenly things begin to make sense. 

Kappazuri — as briefly mentioned — is a stencil art, however, the use of stencils was much more common in another, perhaps more synonymous part of Japanese culture — printing designs on and dyeing kimonos. This could mean that despite the work being relatively recent the process of creating kappazuri is steeped in tradition. 

As far as I understand it, despite the switch in medium, the techniques and stages of production are almost identical, utilising Japanese washi paper for the stencils and dye-resistant paste to preserve each step and provide precision. 

Hiromitsu Takahashi

The chance to observe kappazuri art is a rare thing indeed; Hiromitsu Takahashi is perhaps one of the very few artists currently pursuing and continuing this art form, if not the only one.

His decision to take up this specific art form was most likely helped by the fact that his parents worked together with an earlier pioneer by the name of Yoshitoshi Mori. Yoshitoshi along with a handful of others were key figures in the movement who also used kabuki as a primary subject for their work. 

It is stated by Hiromitsu himself on his website that he took up the mantle following Yoshitoshi’s ill health and his decision to continue the kabuki theme was due to his own enjoyment of the art. This leaves a big question: what will happen to kappazuri once Hiromitsu retires? 

It’s worth noting as well that the Ashmolean Museum is, at present, the only location in the UK that has a collection of his prints. 

Thoughts and impressions

The Kabuki Legends exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum offers a glimpse at the relatively unknown world of kappazuri art. It’s an act that I can only praise as it’s delivering a piece of Japanese art history that I for one have never come across until my trip to the gallery; it’s also one that you may find harder to see going forward. 

It’s a fairly small exhibition space with around 12 prints to see in total which may not take up a lot of your time, but it is certainly worthwhile to get up and close to these vivid images of kabuki actors and performances and imagine the unfolding scenes they are part of — especially if you are already a fan of Japanese printwork in general. 

My only criticism would be a lack of information on kappazuri art, while there are some brief insights; considering how rare and unfamiliar the practice is, a small section of tools and diagrams or such could further educate and immerse viewers. 

Still, taking a look at the Kabuki Legends exhibition is well worth a look and a welcome addition to its already grand Japanese collection found in other areas of the museum. It’s also free which really means there’s no excuse not to take a look. 

Kabuki Legends is open until the 4th of February 2024 so there’s still plenty of time to plan a trip and visit for yourselves.