Kabuki prints, book covers from Tibet fill UMMA shows

Michael H. Hodges, Detroit News Fine Arts Writer

Two Asian shows at the University of Michigan Museum of Art provide welcome and colorful relief from the wintry gray outside these days.

“Japanese Prints of Kabuki Theater” is up through Jan. 29, while “Protecting Wisdom: Tibetan Book Covers from the MacLean Collection” will come down April 2.

The kabuki prints, pulled from the museum’s outstanding collection of some 300 actor prints, were selected by guest curator Mariko Okada and Natsu Oyobe, the UMMA curator of Asian Art.

Drawn from the Edo (1615-1867) and Meiji (1868-1912) periods, the prints cover a remarkable range in the hyper-stylized theater combining dance, drama and song.

Intriguingly, these images were, in effect, the Hollywood posters of their day.

Kabuki actors were superstars in the 17th-19th centuries, and their popularity fueled a publishing industry that mass-produced woodcut block prints — cheaper than theater tickets — for insatiable fans of all economic means.

“Twelve Hours of Magic, Hour of the Sheep ... ” by Toyohara Kunichika, 1877.

Women were banned from the stage in 1629 as too erotic (and for alleged prostitution). So men, a bit like in the Elizabethan theater of roughly the same era, assumed their roles in subsequent decades, with some specializing in onnagata, or the woman’s part.

Onnagata roles involved a mannerist, highly ritualized femininity.

By contrast, tachiyaku — or “standing role” — actors portrayed the stalwart, often silent, male hero. A good example is the 1857 “Ichikawa Ichizō III as Kinryū Kumokichi,” with his aggressive stance and sword at the ready.

Again, much like Hollywood, the kabuki theater drove fashions in hairstyles, dress, personal ornamentation and speech across all social classes — an unexpected example of mass culture in the 17th century.

“Protecting Wisdom: Tibetan Book Covers from the MacLean Collection” bills itself as the first major exhibition of this unusual art form, with 33 meticulously decorated covers.

Tibetan book cover “The Four Gods of the Kadam in Celestial Palaces,” 12th century.

Books are said to be semi-divine artifacts in Tibetan Buddhism, in which the Buddha lives and reveals himself. As a consequence, books and their elaborate covers — usually painted wood with gilding — are handled with unusual respect.

Most of the covers on display are Tibetan Buddhist, but one comes from the Tibetan Bon-religion, two others are Mongolian, and anothe pair were produced around 1411 for the Chinese Ming emperor, Yongle.


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‘Japanese Prints of Kabuki Theater from the Collection of the University of Michigan Museum of Art’

Through Jan. 29

‘Protecting Wisdom: Tibetan Book Covers from the MacLean Collection’

Through April 2

University of Michigan Museum of Art, 525 S. State, Ann Arbor

11 a.m.- 5 p.m. Tue.- Sat.; noon-5 p.m. Sun.

Free (a $10 donation is suggested)

(734) 764-0395