Toshusai Sharaku (17??-1801?) was one of the great masters - and one of the great innovative and creative geniuses - of the Japanese woodblock print, in addition to being the greatest mystery in the world of ukiyo-e, and one of the great enigmas in all of world art.
First, we know next to nothing of him, other than his prints; not even his true name, or the date of his death, is known with any certainty. Second, and even more astonishing, his active career as a woodblock artist seems to have spanned a mere ten months, at the end of 1794 and start of 1795. He appeared from nowhere, instantly attained the greatest heights of genius (it has been asserted by some that he ranks with Rembrandt and Velazquez as one of the three greatest portrait artists of all time), and disappeared with equal rapidity.
As best we can now tell, he appears to have been a Noh actor named Saito Jurobei, in the service of the daimyo of Awa, the Hachisuka family. One theory (for which there is no known evidence either way) for his abrupt disappearance is that his master was unhappy with his retainer's association with the demi-monde of the kabuki, instead of the more refined Noh which the master supported.
His career appears to have been so brief in part because the radical nature nature of his work aroused the hostility of the art world in Edo. One contemporary manuscript writes:
"Sharaku designed likenesses of Kabuki actors, but because he depicted them too trthfully, his prints did not conform to accepted ideas, and his career was short.."It seems likely that his prints, with their tendency to wring the last drop of truth from his subjects through close depiction of personal characteristics, left customers with a sense of unease, and made his prints difficult to sell. Further, it seems plausible that he was unwilling to compromise his art, and his critics hounded him from the art world.
Indeed, his work did not become popular among collectors in Japan until
artists and collectors in the West discovered him in the late nineteenth
century. He is now considered one of the greatest of all woodblock artists,
and the first 'modern' artist of Japan, and the extraordinarily rare
originals of his prints command fantastic sums at auctions.
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