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The Art of Realism

Artistic Role Playing
Suzuki Harunobu<br/>Japanese, 1725–70<br/> <em>Mitate of the ‘Hachinoki’ Story</em>,1765–66 <br/>Color woodblock print<br/>Gift of Louis W. Hill, Jr.
  Suzuki Harunobu
Japanese, 1725–70
Mitate of the ‘Hachinoki’ Story,1765–66
Color woodblock print
Gift of Louis W. Hill, Jr.


What seems to be going on in this picture?

This Japanese woodblock print is called a mitate. Mitate are visual puns or similes. They depict scenes from famous stories, plays, or parables, but with a twist: the artist often placed famous people, iconic settings, or beautiful women into the scene, creating a fantasy print that still contained elements of reality. Because mitate often referenced theater, literature, or religious stories, they were a sort of intellectual game. Viewers enjoyed identifying the people and stories in the prints.

One of the most popular types of mitate depicted beautiful women playing the roles of men from famous plays or stories. This image, created by Suzuki Harunobu, an artist who specialized in mitate, shows a scene from a well-known play from the no theatre called Hachi-no-ki (Potted Tree). The play is about an impoverished samurai who offered to burn his last three bonsai trees to keep a traveling monk warm on a cold winter night. The monk, who was really a government official in disguise, was so pleased with the samurai's sacrifice that he rewarded the samurai with three tracts of land. Each piece of land was named for the sacrificed trees: pine, plum, and cherry. In this print, Harunobu replaces the poor samurai with a well-dressed, charming woman. She is about to daintily chop into the first tree.

Even though this print is a fantasy, Harunobu made it look believable. Describe the visual elements and details he included to make the scene look so real to his audience. For example, think about the props, sense of space, and the setting.

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1. This is a photographic reenactment of Spanish painter Francisco de Goya's etching, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters. Yinka Shonibare substituted a real person wearing colorful Dutch wax cotton for Goya's original figure. Yinka Shonibare, English, born 1962. The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (Australia), 2008. Chromogenic print mounted on aluminum. The C. Curtis Dunnavan Fund for Contemporary Art. © Yinka Shonibare, courtesy James Cohan Gallery, New York.
2. Yasumasa Morimura recreates famous portraits using his own face and body as the subject. Here, he stands in for the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. He wears fabric designed by Louis Vuitton and a Japanese-style hair ornament. Yasumasa Morimura, Japanese, born 1951. An Inner Dialogue with Frida Kahlo, 2001. Color photograph on canvas. Gift of funds from Beverly Grossman. © 2001 Yasumasa Morimura, courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York.
3. Rembrandt used Hendrijke Stoffels, the love of his life, as a model for this realistic painting of a Roman story about Lucretia, a woman who took her life rather than live in dishonor. Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn, Dutch, 1606–69. Lucretia, 1666. Oil on canvas. The William Hood Dunwoody Fund.


January 2013