An interview with Hélène Bayou, chief curator of the Japanese department at the Musée Guimet

By Artkhade with Art Media Agency

Paris 25 June 2015


Hélène Bayou, chief curator of the Japanese department at the Musée Guimet in Paris, France, recently put together an exhibition entitled “Japan, Images of Actors: 18th-Century Kabuki Prints”, which has been running from 15 April until 6 July this year, organised in parallel with a similar exhibition at the same museum: “From Nô to Mata Hari, 2000 years of Asian theatre”, which is running until 31 August 2015. Art Media Agency had the pleasure of talking to the fascinating and knowledgeable curator.

How did you come up with the idea to put on the current exhibition of Kabuki prints? Two years ago, together with the director president of the Musée Guimet Sophie Makariou, we came up with a project for the Japanese prints kept at the Musée Guimet that the Japanese section could carry out. We have quite a rich collection of about 5,000 prints dating from the Edo to the Meiji period by both renowned and lesser-known artists, embodying the entire history of the aesthetic movement Ukiyo-e. A small part of the Japanese prints collection continues to be regularly exhibited on the second floor of the museum, within the Japanese section. It’s a specific room connected to the original museum library (within the carefully kept 1880’s architecture), which has been devoted to the exhibition of Japanese prints and drawings since the museum’s renovation in 2000. We then decided that we should organise short exhibitions about our prints collection twice a year, taking the time to develop specific ideas about a specific selection of these remarkable graphic wo rks. An important temporary exhibition is currently taking place at the Musée Guimet, entitled “From Nô to Mata Hari, 2000 years of Asian theatre”, and we therefore decided that the exhibition to be held at the same time would display Japanese prints dealing mainly with the subjects of Japanese Kabuki and actors’ portraits in the 18th century.

Do the works you’re exhibiting in this exhibition mainly come from the museum’s collection or have they been loaned from elsewhere? All the works come from the Guimet, which is why this kind of exhibition is challenging. As the prints are so fragile, only around 50 could be selected from the permanent collection to be displayed for a period of three months. Afterwards, these prints will go back into storage where they will be kept away from light, and they will not be on display again for two or three years due to conservation reasons.

How did you choose which works and which artists to display in this exhibition? About 50 works (paintings and mainly prints) are on display at the exhibition, dating from the 18th century. Apart from one rare painting which can be attributed to the second quarter of the 17th century, and a few “primitive style” prints dating from the last 20 years of the 17th century, all of the other works displayed here, both paintings and prints, were created during the 18th century. I tried to display the works of the most important artists from these periods, and then tried to evidence how they deal with different aspects of the theatrical universe. Not all 18th-century artists dealt with the subject of Kabuki theatre and actors: only a few of them specialised in this field, underlining the different aspects of this world. I tried my best to choose the best prints kept in our collection for each of these motifs.

Could you explain the general structure of the exhibition and the themes covered? The first paintings and the most ancient prints tend to explain how the pictorial representation of Kabuki appeared in Japan. This happened at the beginning of the Edo period, around the first half of the 17th century, and they deal with descriptions of very famous places in towns, for example, in Kyoto. In this respect, we are showing a very important two-fold screen representing one of the ancient forms of Kabuki theatre: Wakashu Kabuki, named after Okuni Kabuki. The painter, who is anonymous, depicts specific places in Kyoto (the former imperial capital) such as shrines, temples, and entertainment spaces. In the painting, you can see the theatre building, the young actors (Wakashu) appearing on the theatrical stage, and the different kinds of spectators. This is a very unique and important painting. Of a similar vein is another large painting dating from the middle of the 18th century, which represents another entertainment space in the to wn of Edo (present-day Tokyo). The Yoshiwara quarter (a famous licensed red-light district in the early 17th century) was a point of interest for the Ukiyo-e artists in the last 20 years of the 17th and 18th centuries. In this silk painting, the Yoshiwara district is very carefully represented, from the shops and teahouses in the streets, some musicians, famous actors, and geisha on their way to the theatre reading theatre programmes. This belongs to genre painting but the main subject here is the town’s citizens enjoying themselves, going to or coming from the theatre. The exhibition also shows how actors became famous and important subjects of prints in the 18th century. The prints represent some specific parts of towns at the beginning of the Edo period: people studying theatre, enjoying theatre, geisha, all linked with contemporary literature. This style of painting then evolved into a style that involved representing only the actors, and in particular individual portraits of specific actors. The Torii artists, and later Tôshusai Sharaku, were interested in depicting beauty, along with the human and individual sides of the actors involved with Edo cultural life in the 18th century.

Could you tell me about what kinds of challenges you encountered when putting together the exhibition? The first challenge was attracting people to the permanent collection of Japanese prints, which is important for the museum and also essential for understanding Edo culture. Another challenge was to be able to research and give more detailed explanations about the lesser-known prints belonging to the collection. For example, we are showing two large ôoban prints by Sugimura Jihei, who was a precursory artist, painter, and print designer at the end of the 17th century, but who was only discovered in the first part of the 20th century. They belong to a group of images that drew their subject from medieval tales, such as the Heike Monogatari or the Soga Monogatari, played by Kabuki actors and painted by Sugimura Jihei or Torii Kiyomasu in an archaic style. The middle part of the show focuses on beautiful prints by the Torii artists dating from the beginning to the middle of the 18th century and then with the Katsukawa school (founded by Miyaga wa Shunsui, it specialised in paintings and prints of Kabuki actors, sumo wrestlers, and prints of beautiful women). The exhibition concludes with two very important Hosoban (narrow) prints signed by the artist Utamaro and striking and powerful portraits by Sharaku, who was a contemporary of Utamaro. These deal with the question of who Sharaku could be, because up until now the identity of this artist was still undecided. We couldn’t exhibit all of Sharaku’s prints or the entire Katsukawa school prints’ collection, so it was quite challenging having to choose the best prints by each of these artists for the exhibition. I also needed to show comparisons between all the prints and to try to help people understand Sharaku’s art, which has always been a kind of mystery. I wanted to suggest what Sharaku’s works were influenced by, and establish some links between his astonishing works and the Katsukawa school prints and Utamaro’s portraits. I needed to make compari sons between these famous artists and their different visions of the Kabuki world.

The majority of Japanese art exhibitions that you’ve curated deal with older works. Are you also interested in holding exhibitions of contemporary Japanese art? The museum has been organising some specific contemporary Asian art exhibitions for several years now. In this respect, two important exhibitions of Japanese contemporary calligraphy have been held. These could be linked with the Musée Guimet’s collection, which keeps a few ancient calligraphy works dating from the 16th until the 19th century. Since 2012, we’ve been working with Mainichi Shodokai, a Japanese association that brings together contemporary calligraphy artists, and which organises annual exhibitions in Japan. We displayed some of these creations at the Musée Guimet in 2012 and also in 2013. We are hosting a third edition, “Sho 3”, this autumn.

Tags: Asian Art, Exhibitions, Interviews