Rodin Works: masks of HANAKO
Between 1908 and 1911, Rodin created a series of 53 masks of the Japanese dancer and actress Hanako; it was the largest number of portraits he ever made of a single person. To explain why he was so fascinated with her appearance, he told his friend Paul Gsell:
"I have made a study of the Japanese actress, Hanako. She has not a particle of fat.... Therefore she has an anatomy totally different from that of Europeans, but is exceedingly beautiful in its unique strength.... Beauty is character and expression. The human body is, above all, the mirror of the soul, from which the greatest beauty comes.... What we adore in the human body is definitely more than its form, however beautiful; it is the flame that illuminates the body from within."
[Rodin in: Paul Gsell, Auguste Rodin - L'Art]
In 1906, Hanako had danced at the Colonial Exhibition in Marseilles where Rodin has seen her for the first time and was intensely interested in the tiny dancer's fierce action in the death scene. The performance had been co-ordinated by the American dancer Loïe Fuller, a friend of Rodin, who had met the actress in 1904 or 1905 and given her the stage name 'Hanako', meaning 'Little Flower'. It was also Loïe Fuller who introduced Hanako to the sculptor, who by that time was plunging into the subject of dance, especially its exotic forms, producing dozens of drawings of the Cambodian dancers who performed in Marseille the same year.
After leaving the stage in Marseille, Hanako came to Paris, where Rodin asked her to become his model. In 1908 or 1907 - but maybe even as early as 1906 - he executed the first 'Mask of Hanako'. In the following years, he continued making masks of the Japanese dancer, many of them expressing death agony. Although the Kabuki Theatre with its extensive repertoire of stylised facial expressions was closed to women , Hanako doubtlessly was so familiar with the Japanese stage traditions that she was able to control her body to the utmost and turn her own face into a mask - a mask that the riddled sculptor in turn tried to scrutinize for the human emotion behind it. In this sense, these 53 works not only are masks: they deal with masks as such, with the possibility to transfer emotion by means of a fixed outer appearance, and the limits of such an effort.
Who was Hanako?
Hanako was born in 1868 in Kamisobue Village located on the River Kiso in the Aichi Prefecture. Her real name was Hisa Ohta, but she was also known as Hisako Hohta - a heroine from the play 'The Geisha's Vengeance'. Hisa's parents, Hachiuemon Ohta and his wife Ume, were wealthy and had three sons and five daughters including Hisa. Enthusiastic for Japanese music and dance, they made extraordinary efforts in training her and her four sisters even in their early childhood. As her parents became faced with financial misery, Hisa moved to a foster family, till her fosther father went into bankruptcy as well and left his home. At the age of ten, Hisa participated in a travelling group of women-actresses, who had noticed her dramatic skills.
At the age of 15, she entered a short engagement as a Geisha, by that time a respectable way of receiving training in song, dance, and shamisen playing. Her marriage was confronted with financial desaster as well, as her husband spent all the money they had saved and returned to his parents, who had always opposed to the wedding. Left alone in Yokohama, she boarded a ship for Denmark in May 1902, to act in a circus-like show in Copenhagen; subsequently, she organized her own group and toured around Europe, at last with great success.
But not only in Europe Hisa's fame increased; after her tour in Russia, the resonance for her dancing acts was overwhelming:
Small, comical, touching Hanako! I call on all the actresses of our decrepit stage to admire and learn from you, for you never rely on 'clever' scripts or costly costumes or complicated sets, but only on your own arts, which are so much fresher so truly theatrical, and so charmingly beautiful. Oh, how vulgar are the speech arts of our actresses compared with yours! [Yevreinov]
The tiny Madame Hanako, with extraordinarily agile face
She showed such refinement of technique and control of her reflex actions that, when she mimicked a cat, the pupils of her eyes seemed to have dilated. [Meierkhol'd]
At the same time, traditional critics in Japan denounced Hanako's performances, stating the fame of this self-made person in fact was a shame for the nation.
In 1914, when the World War I broke out, Hanako travelled to London together with Rodin and Rose Beuret, where she had an engagement at the Ambassadors Theatre. As it was getting more difficult to obtain stage contracts, she opened a Japanese restaurant named "Kogetsu (Moon-Lake)" in Dorset Square, London in 1917. Four years later, she returned to Japan for good.
According to the promise Rodin made before he died, the French government sent two masks after Hanako : 'Head of Death' and 'A Meditating woman'. Within a short time, the returned model received demands of men of letters and artists for having a look at these portraits; specialists and also students from the Schools of Fine Art came to visit her and art dealers showed active interest in purchasing the works. For Hanako, this growing interest became increasingly disturbing - she feared the precious works might be damaged.
When the World War II broke out, France and Japan became enemies. Any person dealing with France was easily branded as a traitor, so that the popularity of the masks now turned into a risk for their owner. The retired dancer found a safe place for them in the house of Dr. Hideo Akatsuka, artist and medical doctor, where the masks remained intact till the end of the war. On 2 April 1945, Hanako died at the age of 77, before her house was destroyed by an American bomb. The masks are now kept in the Niigata City Art Museum.
[Biographical information summarized from the book 'Rodin and Hanako" by Sawada Suketaro, son-in-law of Hanako's adopted son.]
BIBLIOGRAPHY (supplied by The
National Gallery of Art, Washington):
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