Bidou Yamaguchi is a Japanese Noh mask maker in the Hosho tradition. He first gained recognition for his exceptional craftsmanship and precision in reproducing traditional Noh masks. However, it was his daring innovation in 2003 that elevated his masks into highly sought-after art pieces. By skillfully integrating iconic faces from famous European oil paintings onto Noh masks, Yamaguchi not only pushed the artistic boundaries of his craft, but also substantially increased the audience for his works, with these new “Western Faces” masks being displayed in exhibitions across the globe. Both Bidou Yamaguchi’s traditional and western art inspired masks hold considerable commercial and aesthetic value for collectors and Asian art connoisseurs.
Read on to learn more about the fascinating early life and career of mask artist Bidou Yamaguchi, as well as the laborious process of creating Noh masks. After outlining the life and work of the artist, this article will explore the value of different Bidou Yamaguchi Noh masks at auction and offer advice on how to buy or sell your own Bidou Yamaguchi Noh Masks.
Who is Bidou Yamaguchi?
Bidou Yamaguchi was born Yamaguchi Hiroki on February 28, 1970 in Fukuoka, a city located on Japan’s Kyushu island. He attended public school in Fukuoka before moving to Tokyo to attend Kuwasawa design school. After graduating from Kuwasawa in 1991, Yamaguchi toured the US, where he was inspired by the Japanese Noh masks held in the collections of various museums he visited.
After returning to Japan, Yamaguchi began carving his first Noh mask, an old man character called Okina. He then took this mask to Gendou Ogawa, a master mask carver in the Hosho tradition and Japanese Living National Treasure. Ogawa was impressed with how accurately Yamaguchi had managed to imitate the Okina mask with no formal training, and agreed to take him on as an apprentice. During his apprenticeship, Yamaguchi would pay visits to Hōshō Noh Gakudo, a Noh theater and school, to study their archives of antique Noh masks. He would then attempt to replicate the masks as closely as possible. After only 5 years, Gendou declared Yamaguchi a master carver, and gave him the artist’s name “Bidou”. Yamaguchi stopped using his old name entirely after this point, preferring to be known as Bidou Yamaguchi instead.
Initially, Yamaguchi continued to carve exclusively traditional Noh masks based off of established characters and designs. Then, around 2003, his work took a dramatic shift when he decided to carve the Mona Lisa’s face onto a Noh mask. When creating the Mona Lisa mask, he considered that Noh masks from the Muromachi period coincided with the creation of many famous European oil paintings. In many of his later works, he continued in this fusion of eastern and western traditions, creating Noh masks based off of a variety of other famous western women’s portraits.
What is a Noh Mask?
Noh masks are painted wooden masks used by performers in traditional Japanese Noh theater performances. In any given performance, the main character is typically the only one to wear a mask. However, hundreds of distinct Noh mask patterns exist, with some portraying a specific character and others representing an archetype such as young woman or old farmer.
The masks are an important indicator of a character’s age, social class, and gender in a play, and careful positioning of the mask relative to the lighting and audience allows a skilled performer to portray a variety of different emotions with a single mask.
Noh theater can be subdivided into five major traditions: Kanzu, Hōshō, Kamparu, Kita, and Kongō. Each of these traditions has its own canon of traditional masks which new masks would be patterned off of. The Hosho tradition, which Bidou was trained in, features relatively slow, simplified dancing with a more complex musical score compared to other traditions.
How are Bidou Yamaguchi Noh Masks Made?
Noh masks are carved from blocks of aged Japanese cypress wood. This wood is preferred as it is relatively easy to carve, rot resistant, and not prone to warping with age. After selecting a cypress block, the artist carefully carves the mask features into the wood by hand using simple hammers, saws, and chisels. Each Noh mask is carved with very specific dimensions in mind, as variances of even a few millimeters can affect the perceived emotional range on stage and lead to a flat, inexpressive mask. Many carvers use paper templates to help with this stage, although some master carvers prefer to forgo the templates and carve free hand.
Once the carving is finished, the masks are covered in several layers of sealant made from crushed white shells and animal glue. The mask is then painted with layers of lacquer tinted with natural earth dyes. Finally, copper or gold details may be added to accentuate certain features, most commonly the eyes, and hemp fiber or animal hair may also be used to give the mask more realistic head or facial hair. Each layer of lacquer must dry and cure for several days or more before the next layer can be put down; between carving and painting, a single Noh mask can take eight to twelve months to complete.
After painting the mask, the artist will artificially age the mask to make them appear more similar to the antique models they are based on. The careful addition of faded or cracked patterns in the paint is believed to give the mask a greater depth and beauty.
Styles of Bidou Yamaguchi Noh Masks
Traditional Hosho Noh Masks
Most of Bidou Yamaguchi’s masks, especially earlier on in his career, were copies of antique Noh masks in the Hosho style. He would study the original masks, then attempt to faithfully recreate them with particular consideration to replicating the expression and the way that light hitting the mask affected its features.
Bidou Yamaguchi Western Faces ‘Portraits’ Masks
Starting in 2003, Bidou Yamaguchi radicalized the Noh mask making process by creating Noh masks inspired by women’s faces from a range of famous European oil paintings including The Mona Lisa, Venus, The Girl With the Pearl Earring, and many more. Yamaguchi was fascinated by faces for most of his life, and saw this project as a way to combine two artistic disciplines he deeply respected and explore the way that these famous faces could be represented in a three dimensional medium.
How Much Are Bidou Yamaguchi Noh Masks Worth?
Bidou Yamaguchi traditional Noh masks typically sell at auction for $450-$1000, although they are an uncommon find which is rarely available for sale in the United States. The highest auction price for a Bidou Yamaguchi lot was achieved in 2023 at Revere auctions, where a pair of Otoko Men Noh masks sold for $2,100. The highest auction price for a single mask was also achieved in 2023 by Revere Auctions for a Koh-Omote “small face” Noh mask, which sold for $1,800.
Example Values of Bidou Yamaguchi Noh Masks
Noh mask depicting Shishiguchi. Carved wood with pigments, lacquer, gofun, and gilt metal. Carved along the inside with Yamaguchi’s mark. With a display case.
- Estimate: $500-1000
- Result: $1,100
Noh mask depicting the devil or demon Hannya. Carved wood with pigments, lacquer, gofun, and gilt metal. Impressed along the inside with Yamaguchi’s mark. With a storage and display case.
- Estimate: $800-1600
- Result: $700
Noh mask depicting Okina, the happy old man, with his distinctive white eyebrows and beard. Carved wood with pigments, lacquer, and gofun. Carved along the inside with Yamaguchi’s mark. With a storage and display case.
- Estimate: $400-800
- Result: $450
Group of 2 Otoko Men Noh Masks
Group of two Otoko-men Noh masks. One depicting Kantan and one depicting Shintai. Carved wood with pigments, lacquer, and gofun. Each impressed along the inside with Yamaguchi’s mark. Each with a display case.
- Estimate: $400-800
- Result: $2,100
Ko-Omote Noh Mask
Ko-omote “small face” Noh mask. Carved wood with pigments, lacquer, and gofun. Carved along the inside with Yamaguchi’s mark. With a display case.
- Estimate: $400-800
- Result: $1,800
How to Identify Authentic Bidou Yamaguchi Noh Masks
All Bidou Yamaguchi Noh masks will have the artist’s signature symbol carved into the wood. The carving is smaller than a penny and is generally placed on the backside of the mask above one of the eye holes.
How Can I Sell My Bidou Yamaguchi Noh Mask?
A limited number of Bidou Yamaguchi Noh masks are available for sale worldwide, and these masks are typically sold through auction. Although an auction house will take a commission upon sale of the item, they offer many useful services such as authenticating the item, researching its value, and advertising the item to their network of potential buyers. While it is possible to sell a Bidou Yamaguchi mask yourself using online resale platforms, you will have to assume all of the risk and labor associated with the sale, including researching the item, taking photographs, vetting potential buyers, and packaging and shipping the item.
Revere Auctions Sells your Bidou Yamaguchi Noh Masks
Revere Auctions offers an excellent opportunity for collectors in Minnesota and beyond to sell their Bidou Yamaguchi Noh masks. With our team of experienced specialists in Asian art, Revere Auctions has established itself as a trusted destination for buying and selling high-quality artwork and collectibles. Whether you’re looking to sell a single piece or an entire collection, or just looking for a free online valuation, Revere Auctions provides a seamless and professional selling experience.
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