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Masked and Revealed: The World of Bidou Yamaguchi

“I was able to have a personal dialogue with the Renaissance masters that touched my soul. I have been able to experience their joy and sorrow. I have felt with my whole being their lives and deaths.”

Photo by Bruce Forster

For centuries, the human face with its varied emotional expressions inspired artists around the world. Noh is one of the oldest forms of theater performed today and has been handed down for more than 600 years. Japan’s Noh theater provides a place for exploring emotion and representing that human expression. Noh craftsman, Bidou Yamaguchi has taken the centuries old Noh mask tradition and turned it into innovation, adding his own style to the art of mask-making.

“Since childhood, the human face has fascinated me. I used to study the faces of people I met day to day, and was drawn to the faces I saw in paintings and sculptures whenever my parents took me to museums,” said Mr. Yamaguchi.

Photo Courtesy of Bidou Yamaguchi

The Western paintings of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, or Vermeer’s Girl with the Pearl Earring had a profound impact on a young Yamaguchi (b. 1970). He saw the people depicted in the paintings with faces that were real yet unreal, fleeting yet eternal at the same time.

“Those faces have a fundamental beauty and personal meaning. They had an unforgettable impact on me as a child,” he said.

When Yamaguchi was twelve years old, his grandmother —who had been living with his family— passed away. Yamaguchi felt a deep fear and sorrow, having never experienced death before. All expressions of life, he said, had vanished from her face. It was his first sight of what he called a “death mask,” yet, he said, her subtle beauty was emanating from her gentle, peaceful face and that consoled him.

Trained to make reproductions of historic Japanese Noh masks, since 2003, Yamaguchi decided to radicalize the traditional mask-making practice. “I had a growing desire to go further, toward a new world of beauty. My desire to go beyond my traditional craft – to create a new and different kind of mask – became stronger day by day.”

Photo Courtesy of Bidou Yamaguchi

Yamaguchi’s masks apply the techniques, transformative spirit, form, and mysteriousness of Noh masks to iconic female portraits from European art history. He is gaining worldwide attention for his masks based on western paintings.

“I began working on a series titled Portraits, using the techniques and practices I had mastered during the previous decade. They were to be a new form of ‘reproduction,’ using the faces of the Mona Lisa and Girl with the Pearl Earring, as well as ‘masks’ from other famous paintings.”

Like a human face, Bidou Yamaguchi’s work opens itself to much interpretation. Bidou’s role is one of a ‘traditional’ artisan who works to reproduce old masks and a ‘contemporary’ artist who uses his mastery to create new objects.

Originally from Fukuoka, Japan, Yamaguchi studied Noh mask carving with Gendou Ogawa, a Living National Treasure, before receiving his “master’s name” of Bidou in 1996.

Since 2014, Yamaguchi’s pieces have been on touring exhibitions in museums in such major American cities as Houston, Chicago, and Los Angeles. We bring several of Bidou Yamaguchi’s contemporary works, from the collection of Kelly and Steve McLeod, to the Portland Japanese Garden for you to see these magnificent
modern mask sculptures up-close and feel their varied emotional expressions.

Masked and Revealed: The World of Bidou Yamaguchi was on display in the Tanabe Gallery from December 9, 2017 – January 14, 2018.