Plaque with a Bugaku Dancer Performing the Genjōraku dance
Bugaku is a type of traditional Japanese dance performance with more than 1,000 years of history. Performers wear costumes and masks and dance to the accompaniment of music played on traditional instruments. Genjōraku is a bugaku performance in which a dancer wearing an eerie mask performs a stirring dance before a snake. According to one theory, it depicts a foreigner from Central Asia rejoicing at finding a snake, which was supposed to be their favorite food.
This plaque is a highly realistic depiction of a Genjōraku performance. Surprisingly, however, it is made entirely of metals. The intricately carved design is made of metals of varying colors—gold, silver, copper, and their alloys—inlaid onto an iron plate. Materials and techniques of this type were originally used for sword guards and other ornaments for swords, as well as for decoration on relatively small everyday items, such as smoking pipes and small cases. Their use in an art object like this plaque, which is designed for aesthetic appreciation rather than practical use, speaks to a rise in new ways of thinking in the world of fine arts in its time.
The lower righthand side of the plaque is engraved with the name of the artist, Unno Shōmin, and a date, which translates to 1893 A.D. This plaque was displayed at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in the United States, which was held that year. Unno Shōmin was a master metalworker who specialized in intricate metal engraving using a variety of metals. His works won high praise at the fairs and exhibitions in and out of Japan where they were displayed. He also worked to foster future generations of artists and was a professor at the Tokyo Fine Arts School, a precursor to the Tokyo University of the Arts. He was also selected as a Court Artist for his accomplishments.