After Vermeer let’s go for something from the 18th century – not from Europe but from the Japanese Edo Ukiyoe – The Floating World of samurais, geishas and Noh actors.
Tôshûsai Sharaku was one of art history’s most fascinating figures and appeared on the Ukiyoe printmaking scene like an alien from outer space. He produced an astonishing body of work in a very brief ten month period in 1794-95. The number of works was also small – if each sheet produced were counted separately then the total would be 145 known individual sheets.
Sharaku's prints were descriptive and the expressions of the actors are extremely vigorous and exaggerated - close to caricatures. The Sharaku prints seem like a snapshot catching the character, the mood and momentary emotions of the actor. The designs reflected not only what was seen on the surface but also empathized with what was being felt by both the actor as a real person and by the stage character he was performing. The most expressive of his portraits were more complex psychologically than were the portraits of his contemporaries. Remember also that the actors were all male so some of Sharaku’s women portraits, above left, are hinting at sexual duality.
We can also observe Sharaku's use of bold, thick lines for the eyes, eyebrows, and mouth, in contrast to the thin, delicate lines of the remainder of the face. So for this interpretation I have focused on the eyes and eyebrows of the Sharaku actor, above right, and his sensational profile. I was lucky too see, at the Japan Foundation in Chifley Tower, an exhibition in 2004 of works celebrating the 200th anniversary of Sharaku’s brief but explosive career. The art works were mainly by graphic designers and my interpretation of Sharaku is heavily influenced by their style. Here is my finished Homage to Sharaku measuring 20 x 30 cm.