Otani Oniji II, dated 1794. The Kabuki actor Otani Oniji II in the role of Yakko (manservant) Edobe.
|Born||Active in 1794|
|Died||Stopped in 1795|
|Field||Ukiyo-e Woodblock Printing|
Tōshūsai Sharaku (東洲斎 写楽, active 1794 - 1795) is widely considered to be one of the great masters of the woodblock printing in Japan. Little is known of him, besides his ukiyo-e prints; neither his true name nor the dates of his birth or death are known with any certainty. His active career as a woodblock artist seems to have spanned just ten months in the mid-Edo period of Japanese history, from the middle of 1794 to early 1795.
One theory[by whom?] claims that Sharaku was not a person, but a project launched by a group of artists to help a woodblock print house that had aided them. In this theory, the name Sharaku is taken from sharakusai, "nonsense," and is an inside joke by the artists, who knew that there was no actual Sharaku. The rapidly changing style that Sharaku utilized, with four distinct stylistic changes in his short career, lends credibility to this claim. It was also common for woodblock prints of this time to involve anywhere from five to ten or more artisans working together. However, it seems unlikely that none of them would reveal Sharaku's true identity, or otherwise leave some information about Sharaku behind.
Another speculation (by Tanaka Hidemichi e.g.) associates Sharaku with the great ukiyo-e master Katsushika Hokusai. This explanation stems from Hokusai's disappearance from the art world between the years of 1792 and 1796, the period that Sharaku's work began to appear. Beyond giving a reason for Hokusai's absence from the Edo art scene during this time the theory has little evidence. 
Regarding his abrupt disappearance, one conjecture[by whom?] is that his master was unhappy with his retainer's association with the demimonde of the kabuki theatre, instead of the more refined Noh theatre which the master supported. There is no evidence supporting or refuting this.
A headman of Kanda area in Edo named Saitō Gesshin (斎藤月岑, 1804-1878) wrote in his supplementary ukiyoe handbook that Sharaku was a Noh actor named Saitō Jūrōbei (斎藤十郎兵衛, 1763?-1820). However, as research progressed, the existence itself of Saitō Jūrōbei had become doubtful. A Noh actor, usually of samurai rank, would have documents proving his origin, the name of Saitō Jūrōbei was not identified in any directory.
Therefore, numerous hypothesis and opinions have come out for a while who Sharaku was, such as an anonymous prominent ukiyo-e painter, or a publisher Tsutaya Jūzaburō, or if "Sharaku" was the name of a ukiyo-e project by a group of artists, etc.
However in recent years, the existence of a Saitō Jūrōbei was recognized in documents that were discovered in Saitama prefecture, which lends more credence to the Saitō Jūrōbei hypothesis.
Retrospective observations 
His career appears to have been so brief in part because the radical nature of his work aroused the hostility of the art world in Edo. One contemporary manuscript records:
- "Sharaku designed likenesses of Kabuki actors, but because he depicted them too truthfully, 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 rediscovered by German scholar Julius Kurth in 1910. He is now considered[by whom?] one of the greatest of all woodblock artists, and the first 'modern' artist of Japan, and the extraordinarily rare extant originals of his prints command fantastic sums at auctions.
This may be in part be because some critics[who?] rank him with Rembrandt and Velazquez as one of the world's three greatest portrait painters, and that he is considered the undisputed master of the actor print[by whom?]. His technique of presenting portraits against black or white mica grounds also makes him distinctive due to the striking effects of the mica. This is discussed by Seiichiro Takahashi in his famous "Traditional Woodblock Prints of Japan" which was published as part of The Heibonsha Survey of Japanese Art (Vol.22, pages 98–102 with 7 prints depicted).
- Muneshige Narazaki, Sharaku: The Enigmatic Ukiyo-e Master (Kodansha, Tokyo, 1983)
- Harold G. Henderson, Louis V. Ledoux, Sharaku's Japanese Theatre Prints: An Illustrated Guide to his Complete Work (Dover Publications, New York, 1984)
- Matthi Forrer, "Hokusai" (Bibliothèque de l'Image, 1996)
- Tanaka, Hidemichi (1999). Sharaku is Hokusai.
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