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'True Likenesses' (nigao)

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In the early Edo period the only distinguishing features of an actor’s identity in a portrait-print were pose, costume, and the actor’s family crest (mon). Little attempt was made to capture his individual likeness until the 1760s, when Shunsho (1726-92) introduced the idea of ‘true likenesses’ (nigao), whereby an actor could be made recognisable from a few keenly observed features. These would then be repeated in other portraits of the same actor, including those by different artists.

The method was well established by Kunisada’s day, as shown by an instruction book written and illustrated by his master Toyokuni and issued in 1817 with the title ‘Quick instruction in the drawing of actor likenesses’ (Yakusha nigao haya-geiko); see photograph. Toyokuni laid out the order in which to draw the features of the face, starting with the nose’the centre of the face’ and moving on to the mouth, eyes and eyebrows, and finally the outline of the face itself. He stressed that the conventions of Kabuki acting had to be understood when placing the pupils in the eyes and drawing the eyebrows, explaining that ‘the eyebrows are determined by the nature of the eyes. When an actor stares, worries or laughs, the eyebrows should be drawn according to the eyes’.

The stylisation of features that formed the basis of ‘true likenesses’ matched the powerful expressive language of facial expression at significant moments of a Kabuki play, when an actor expressed his emotional state with exaggerated facial gestures such as tight grimaces or crossed eyes. These moments of high drama were especially effective because for the rest of the play the actor’s face was relatively expressionless, and they were heightened by make-up that emphasised precisely those elements that make up a ‘true likeness’ the prominent nose, mouth and eyes. These were usually the moments captured in actor portraits.

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Organised for Japan 2001

The Fitzwilliam Museum is especially grateful to John Carpenter, Tim Clark, Paul M. Griffith, Hideyuki Iwata and Ellis Tinios for their generous help during the preparation of this exhibition.

Funded by Japan 2001