Sharaku popped into the ukiyo-e printmaking scene in May 1794 like an alien from outer space. Sharaku produced some 140 woodblock prints within only ten months and then he disappeared suddenly and mysteriously. Numerous theories were developed and countless books were written trying to give an answer to one of the biggest enigmas in art history.
The images on this page are reproductions. The originals are mostly in museum possession. And if ever a Sharaku print is offered in the market, it is extremely expensive and usually not in the best condition.
Sharaku is ranked higher in today's art world than such great masters like Utamaro Kitagawa or Hokusai Katsushika. He is regarded as a kind of supernatural phenomenon. Of course, the mystery of his life adds up a lot to the hype.
Art historians count some 140 Sharaku woodblock prints made during a short time span of less than one year from about May 1794 until around February 1795. Even the precise number of woodblock prints and the dates are contested among art scholars. Nearly all Sharaku prints show Kabuki actors - either as individual portraits or two performing characters. A few Sharaku prints show Sumo wrestlers. The best known woodblock prints are facial close-ups of actors.
The expressions of the actors are extremely vigorous and exaggerated - close to caricatures. The Sharaku prints seem like a snap-shot catching the character, the mood and momentary emotions of the actor.
Just like Utamaro, Sharaku was forgotten in Japan after his death. Both were rediscovered in Europe towards the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century.
Nothing is known about the birth or death of Toshusai Sharaku. But of course, there are a few theories trying to solve the mystery.
One theory about his identity says that he was a No actor named Saito Jurobei and a retainer of the daimyo of Awa.
Another theory indicates that Sharaku was only an alias used by another artist - namely by Utamaro! There is one fact that supports this theory. Both Utamaro and Sharaku had the same publisher, Tsutaya Juzaburo. Another theory speculates that Tsutaya Juzaburo himself designed and produced these woodblock prints.
One possible explanation for his sudden disappearance is the radical and caricature-like way in which Sharaku displayed the actors. It might have been regarded as offensive towards the actors and their fans. Sharaku prints were so much out of conformity that they apparently did not sell well. The public wanted idealized depictions of their favorite actors instead of exaggerated but truthful portraits.
The combination of a hostile art scene, a bad commercial outcome and an artist who was not willing to make any compromises, sounds like a plausible theory for his mysterious disappearance. Toshusai Sharaku mobbed out of the printmaking business by the art establishment?
Today in and outside Japan, Toshusai Sharaku is considered as an outstanding portrait artist in art history. Some scholars even put him next to Rembrandt or Velasquez in his quality as a portraitist.
His woodblock prints are extremely rare and out of reach for an average ukiyo-e collector. Whenever a Sharaku print is offered at an auction, it is hammered for a six digit dollar amount. In 1997 a Sharaku print from the Vever collection in modest condition was sold at Sothebys for US$296,000.
Author: Dieter Wanczura