One of the great mysteries of art was the Japanese artist Sharaku. He appeared out of nowhere and even his reality is questioned. Like the mystery of exactly who Shakespeare was, there is not only uncertainty as to who Sharaku was but whether he existed at all.
Whatever the historical reality of Sharaku, the extraordinary work attributed to the name appeared seemingly out of nowhere in stunningly perfected form in the middle of 1794. And then just as suddenly the work ceased entirely, never to be resumed afterward.
One theory has him as a collective of artists due to the extraordinarily prolific output.
The work was radical in that it exposed psychological truths that have earned him the ranking by some critics as one of the greatest portraitists of all time. The other work of the time was far more stylized and formal.
His work was largely ignored until rediscovered in 1910 by the German scholar Julius Kurth. Kurth claimed that Sharaku was one of the world’s three greatest portraitists, alongside Velazquez and Rembrandt.
An exhibition of his work was recently mounted at the Tokyo National Museum.
One of the reasons for Sharaku’s commercial failure is that his portraits make it clear that the female characters were actually played by middle aged male actors, destroying the illusion the actors were so intent on conveying. But it’s what makes portraits like this so completely engaging and fascinating.