Julio Nakamurakare reviews a rare exhibition of one of Buenos Aires’ cultural treasures: a 19th century Ukiyo-e Japanese print collection, currently on display at the Museo Nacional de Arte Decorativo.
Unbeknown to most – even the most seasoned experts – Buenos Aires is lined up with unimaginable cultural treasures. Well concealed or gathering dust in some derelict warehouse or public institution they may be, but it takes some digging, a lot of research, and patience to come up with things that amount to true discoveries.
Take, for instance, the fabulous Ukiyo-e (Japanese print) collection owned, but almost never displayed, by the Museo Nacional de Arte Oriental. Founded half a century ago, the museum has yet to find a home of its own – namely, a building to preserve and display its wealth of art pieces from Asia.
Though only a temporary solution, the Museo Nacional de Arte Decorativo has devoted a wing at its beautiful Beaux Arts premises to the Museo Nacional de Arte Oriental, which is now presenting the temporary exhibition ‘Aires de Kabuki: teatro popular y estampa del siglo XIX’ (Aires de Kabuki: popular theatre and stamps from the XIX century) until 24th July.
In order to fully grasp the importance of ‘Aires de Kabuki’, it must be considered that the exhibition is made up of the combination of two Japanese art forms: Kabuki theatre and the woodblock prints created to promote new plays and performances as well as souvenirs. Along with Noh, Bugaku, Kyogen, and Bunraku, Kabuki is one of Japan’s five most important theatre traditions. Even if dissimilar in content and style, they share an aesthetic relation derived from the convergence of sources from inside and outside Japan.
In contrast with the Aristotelian concept of mimesis, or the imitation of reality, which dominates Western theatre, Japanese theatre, regardless of genre, strives to induce moods and to create an aesthetic experience. Of all five theatre forms prevailing in Japan, Kabuki was the one that took even further the concept of combining speech, sound, movement and space, all deserving the same status.
Ukiyo-e, or “pictures from the floating world”, is an indigenous art form representing successive periods of political and social change in Japan. It was developed between the 17th and 19th centuries to complement Kabuki. If analogies are to be made, you may well say that Kabuki, was the sociocultural manifestation of that moment. While performance, of course, was the real thing, Ukiyo-e, produced by the publishing industry for Kabuki fans and followers of popular stars of the genre, took on a life all its own and became another narrative.
As Ukiyo-e started to become popular among Western artists in the 19th century, the Japanese woodblock prints somehow found their way into the homes and private collections of art lovers around the world. Some of them found a place of their own in private collections.
Enter Mexican Oriental and African art expert Amaury García Rodríguez, who travelled the world in search of these lost treasures. In early 2013, García Rodríguez landed in Buenos Aires because he had learnt that Ukiyo-e gems were to be found here. Most Ukiyo-e prints were in the possession of the Museo Nacional de Arte Oriental, stacked in storage at the Museo Nacional de Arte Decorativo.
Selecting, classifying, and cataloguing the collection was a painstaking two-year job. “This is probably the largest and best-preserved Ukiyo-e collection in all of South America,” García Rodríguez proudly said of his curatorial work. “It consists of some 200 pieces with the highest standards of artistic excellence, and they are also remarkable in that they share a thematic unity. This allowed us to put together this exhibition.
“Although the prints were not clearly catalogued, we were eventually able to pinpoint the illustrator and the publisher, year of publication, the actor gracing the print, and the character he played in the Kabuki play in question,” he said.
García Rodríguez believes Aires de Kabuki will resonate strongly with local art lovers. “Buenos Aires has a very important, long-standing theatre and book publishing tradition. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Edo [the former name of Japan’s capital, Tokyo] was a vibrant, very intense cultural centre too. In this sense, (the two cities) have very interesting traits in common.”
‘Aires de Kabuki’, one of the hottest tickets in town right now, proves García Rodríguez right: this is a must-see in Buenos Aires’ ultrabusy cultural scene.
‘Aires de Kabuki: teatro popular y estampa del siglo XIX’ runs until 24th July at the Museo Nacional de Arte Decorativo, Av.del Libertador 1902. For more information, visit www.mnad.org
Photos by Mauro Rico / Ministerio de Cultura de la Nación