Arts The art capades

Beauty and the freaks

This week I hunted down two “blink and you miss it” museum shows that would make enchanting additions to your visual and conceptual repertoire. Feminine Beauty in 19th Century Japanese Art is small, but crackles like the whisk of a paper fan (San Antonio Museum of Art, 200 W. Jones, 978-8100, through May). Combining complexity of space with simplicity of language, this sweet little show will change monthly, featuring approximately 15 prints each month. Tucked away within SAMA’s Asian wing, the selections are culled from 100 color woodblock prints by Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1864). The artist used traditional Japanese beauties, or bijn, from the pleasure quarters of Japan to illustrate One Hundred Poems by One Hundred Poets, an anthology of famous poetry compiled by Fujiwara no Sadie in the 13th century.

A woodcut print from One Hundred Poems by One Hundred Poets, on view at the San Antonio Museum of Art.

In “poem no. 4,” Yamabe no Akahito uses the mere 31 syllables of Tanka poetry to cast a simple spell:

When I take the path/ To Tago’s coast, I see/ Perfect whiteness laid/ On Mount Fuji’s lofty peak/ By the drift of falling snow Akahito’s clarity of expression is startling. In the accompanying block print, Kunisada’s beauty powders the dark widow’s peak on the back of her neck using a large brush and hand mirror. A cosmetic dusting recreates snow falling on a mountain, while the mirror’s reflective glass stands in for the abutting sea.

In the upper corner of each print, an open book or pair of cards carries the poet’s portrait and featured poem. While we collect decks featuring Most Wanted terrorists, these lovely cards existed for centuries, memorization tools for emperors, courtiers, and other elites to learn famous poems. Their social discourse was an intellectual seduction dance through poetry, including famous Tanka poems recited and referenced with stunning skill.

Like Tanka poetry, with its limited syllables, traditional bijn kept their make-up to the same simple tricolor the White Stripes’ Jack and Meg White adhere to: white skin, red lips, and blackened teeth. Kunisada’s woodblock ladies wriggle in their deconstructed, compressed sense of space in typical Japanese fashion. Patterned kimonos appear to dance around a pedestal case in the room’s center, where a lacquered set of drawers and its 33-piece cosmetic set might be the mythical altar of beauty. The large number of tools reveals how much ritual drove this beauty regimen.

Another show you could too easily miss is The Art of the Circus at the Witte Museum (3801 Broadway, 357-1900, through July 16). While this small exhibition may not be the greatest show on earth, there are some bizarre images that you just can’t see anywhere else. Harry Hertzberg, a San Antonian in love with the circus, rescued 20,000 pieces of circus ephemera before his death in 1940. The renowned Hertzberg collection is the Witte’s version of the Tobin Collection of Theatre Arts, but plays bizarre underbelly to culture rather than center stage.

A vintage Barnum & Bailey poster, left, is on view at the Witte Museum as part of The Art of the Circus.

A group of mannequins posed as acrobats are thankfully headless considering the loud video that plays on a loop behind them. Ironically, the popularization of film changed the look of circuses around the 1920s, inspiring them to hire theatrical designers to create cohesive looks. Before that, each performer created his or her own costume and each clown was an existential anti-hero.

To be honest, though, it’s not the costumes but the fabulous posters that make this show such an interesting visual resource. Incredibly weird images feature gobs of hourglass-figured Gibson girls riding bikes, roller-skating, flying with 100 white doves, or bouncing and contorting on gas lamps while biplanes fly overhead. Gorgeously colored compositions are covered with flocks of trapeze artists such as the Nine Jordans and the Incomparable Clarkonians. More than one woman gets shot out of a cannon and the text is delightful — each a virtual haiku of wondrous description. Surrealism meets burlesque — learn it, love it.

By Catherine Walworth

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