The world of Noh theater, Japan's 600-year-old performance tradition, is rarefied even to the Japanese themselves. And most Americans, who've never experienced the refined plays, may not have even heard of Noh -- though they've likely seen its iconic masks, carved to portray the faces of young beauties, wizened old men, or ferocious demons.
Shedding light on this mysterious art form, Phoenix Art Museum is the first American venue to host "Sculpture in Silk: Costumes From Japan's Noh Theater," an extensive exhibition that's already toured Asia and Europe.
"The exhibit has appeal to a variety of audiences," says Dr. Janet Baker, curator of Asian art. "People interested in theater, people interested in costume and fashion design, and people interested in textile and industrial history in Japan."
Featuring more than 100 items, including antique costumes up to 300 years old and meticulous modern replicas, sashes, masks, photos and woodblock prints, the show gives a sense of the history behind Noh, which flourished during Japan's Muromachi period, from 1392 to 1568. Its earliest patrons were aristocrats and feudal lords, who sometimes donated exquisite robes to their favorite actors. "Today's Noh theater costumes have been based on those ancient models," says Baker.
Like ballet, Noh contains no dialogue. Instead, musical narration tells the stories. Through studied movements and costume choices, the actors -- generally all men, regardless of the role -- convey the subtleties of the characters. Based in literature and folk tales, the plays often revolve around ghosts and demons, who usually make their first appearances disguised as ordinary people. Actors navigate a stark, polished wood stage, wielding little more than a simple fan that stands in for a variety of props.
This minimalistic backdrop contrasts dramatically with the bold costumes, made in countless patterns and colors. Any given costume isn't specific to a particular role, though. Instead, "it conveys certain personality characteristics," explains Baker. For example, a chrysanthemum motif represents authority. Other symbols might indicate strength or sincerity. And some designs are used more often for male or female roles.
"Large and dramatic" is how Baker describes the exhibition as a whole. Groupings of costumes illustrate how pieces can be combined to make sculptural effects on the body, and how characters are created with different garments.
Yamaguchi Noh Research Center in Kyoto, Japan, provided the costumes, as well as information on how they were traditionally made. "They're actually going back and rediscovering some of the old techniques that have been lost for 2 or 300 years," Baker says. Such intricate craft is an interesting context for the costumes themselves.
"It shows you the very painstaking and time-consuming process of taking silkworms and raw silk and getting to such elaborate and complex costumes," says Baker. "It's more than just admiring the finished product."