Kôgyo prints tell stories at the Frick

Tsukioka Kôgyo was, by profession, an artist. You will see his work hanging on the walls of the Frick Art Museum, just like Hubert Robert and Matteo di Giovanni. But deep in his work lay traces of both a historian and a theater critic. Kôgyo’s feature exhibit, The Prints of Tsukioka Kôgyo, is an in-depth exploration of a Japanese art form called Noh theater, which has been an integral part of the country’s culture since the 14th century.

Upon the centralization of power in Japan in the late 19th century, the structure of the government was beginning to take a formal shape. But this wasn’t the only aspect of Japanese culture that was shifting; also evolving was the general way of life. “Things were changing quickly,” said Sarah Hall, curator to the exhibit. But with this growth, there was also “a movement to preserve Japanese history and culture.” Both Noh theater and Kôgyo’s work were part of this preservation and restoration.

The Noh theater was a “collection of old tales influenced by both Shinto and Buddhist philosophies,” said Hall. The plot lines were neither intricate nor fantastical, but had an infectious — in Hall’s words — “simplicity and discipline” in style. And even though the plays progressed slowly by nature, Hall says that Noh theater had exciting musical components; chorus chants, flutes, and drums all crept into the experience.

Although Kôgyo had no part in writing the stories himself, a visit to the Kôgyo exhibit is far from a field trip for an art history class. For one thing, Kôgyo’s woodblock images of Japanese figures are lively in action, rich in color, and engaging in composition.

Almost all of the images in the exhibit are images of Noh theater actors dressed as warriors and motherly figures or masked as dragons and lions. “The visual effects are astonishing,” Hall said. In “Shakkyô,” two actors masked as lions dance through a field of flowers against a plush red backdrop. “Hajitomi” shows a pale actress inside a lattice shutter with a pine tree swaying in the background.

The visuals of Kôgyo’s work undoubtedly pull the viewer in, but it is the fabulous stories behind the art that hold your interest. (After all, a museum-goer can only take so many works by the same artist in a single style, be it Kôgyo or Warhol.) In “Kamawa,” the heroine wears a headdress with three candles and a kimono in an attempt to turn into an evil demon and take revenge against her unfaithful husband. Although “Senju” is a simple portrait of a peaceful-looking girl, the story is more involved — and tragic. A boy and girl meet, play music together, and become friends. After pledging never to forget his wonderful day, the boy is sentenced to execution because he is a prisoner of war.

Through works like these, Kôgyo taps into the psychological undercurrents of daily life. In “Dôjôji,” two prints sit side by side; one is of a woman calmly entering a dojo (a training facility) to visit her husband, who has cheated on her. The background is a simple white, her dress quaint and her white mask basic. The other print is impossibly macabre, with a black background and the same woman dressed as a demon seeking revenge on her husband.

And just when the breadth of characters, stories, and ideas begins to overwhelm, the museum gives the exhibit an extra kick with the addition of a woodblock in the center of one of the rooms. The centerpiece shows a woodblock as a work in progress, and explains in full detail Kôgyo’s process of making a finished product. Kôgyo’s work was difficult, requiring meticulous attention.

He would begin by drawing a study in ink for his print. Then, he would carve the image onto a woodblock, leaving behind only the parts of the picture which were going to be black. For whatever parts he wanted to be colored, he would next need to carve out new blocks, color them to his liking, and align them perfectly with the print. It is only when you see this process that you appreciate the sheer quantity of high-quality works that Kôgyo produced.

Though the Frick is a ways from campus (and hard to reach by bus), Kôgyo’s woodblocks justify the trip. His work is not only engaging and informative — it is also an eye-opening glimpse of a part of Japanese history that is, as Hall pointed out, “older than Shakespeare.”