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Performance of Death in Japanese Kabuki Actor Prints
Ichikawa Danjuro IX (1838-1903) in a Shibaraku Role
Woodblock Print.

STANFORD, CA.- From April 13 through July 24, 2005, the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University presents a little-studied aspect of Japan’s “Floating World.” The exhibition "Shini-e: The Performance of Death in Japanese Kabuki Actor Prints" depicts a magical world of swashbucklers, transvestites, demons, witches, gods, monks, ghosts, and apparitions, as Floating World superstars make their final curtain call to the hereafter.

"Many have heard of Japan’s 'Floating World' peopled with dashing actors, bewitching courtesans, and enormous coteries of insatiable fans — in sum, the pleasure industry of early-modern Japan. The very term Floating World, ukiyo in Japanese, connotes life’s impermanence as well as the fleeting nature of life’s pleasures," said Melinda Takeuchi, professor of art history at Stanford. "But less studied is how that impermanence manifests itself concretely in the little-known genre called shini-e, or 'death pictures,' "

This exhibition of 27 works is drawn from a unique collection assembled by Stanford Prof. Emeritus Albert Dien, consisting of more than 350 shini-e woodblock prints from the 18th to early 20th centuries. Dien's collection vividly shows the diversity of Japanese ideas about the interplay between the worlds of the living and the dead. It pictures strategies by which the bereaved "managed" the personal disquietude and disruptions that attend death. It raises questions of individual versus social identity, of devices for perpetuation of actors’ lineages, and of the critical roles played by fans and other hangers-on upon whom the actors’ livelihood depended. Despite the seriousness of their mission, shini-e partake of an unexpected sense of play and the lively wit and irreverence synonymous with Floating World culture.

These commemorative prints were lucrative commercial productions as well. The death of a popular actor could generate more then 100 prints by rival publishers. So urgent was the economic need to scoop the competition that publishers did not hesitate, when facts were not immediately available, to make up the actor’s death date, a poignant farewell poem, his age, or other information.

The exhibition, which has been made possible through the generous support of the J. Sanford and Constance Miller Fund for Academic Initiatives, is the product of an undergraduate art history seminar at Stanford. Takeuchi and Stanford Visiting Lecturer Christine Guth, one of the foremost U.S. scholars on Japanese art, have been teaching a class with the same title as the exhibition. Under the direction of Takeuchi and Guth, the students shaped the material into four sections: Actors On Stage, The Actor Exits, Journey to the Afterworld, and Mourning and Remembrance. The students also researched the 27 prints selected for the exhibition, wrote the art labels, and created the explanatory text for the gallery walls.

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