Friday 8 October 2021

Rodin and the Little Japanese Dancer by Lesley Downer

‘It was impossible to hold this look for such a long time. I couldn’t help moving a little bit, and M. Rodin said, “Not so much Hanako, not so much.”’

In 1906 Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) was 67 and hugely famous. He had brought sculpture into the modern age with his powerfully muscular, uncompromising works like The Kiss and The Thinker. But his great years seemed to be behind him. Nearly a decade had passed since 1898, when he’d laboured over Balzac, but his masterwork had been rejected. In disappointment, Rodin transformed himself into an official artist, churning out busts of famous, well-paying personalities. He seemed to have lost his spark, his edge, the anger which had driven his creativity.

But he was still obsessed with capturing the body in motion. That year he went to Marseilles to the Colonial Exposition to sketch the Cambodian dancers. There he happened to pass a small hut temporarily erected in the woods with banners in front proclaiming the name of the troupe in white on a red background. Inside a small Japanese dancer was performing a death scene. Rodin stepped inside and was transfixed. He later said that there was ‘a flame which illuminated her from within.’

‘A tiny Japanese gifted with graceful form, lively eyes, a rebellious nose, feline movements.’
Hanako was a tough, resilient, sparky little woman - very little; at 38 she was only 4 foot 6 inches tall (1 meter 37 cm), so tiny and girlish that westerners assumed she was much younger.

Hanako 4 April 1908,Vienna, Austria,
courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Born Ohta Hisa in 1868 in Aichi, Central Japan, she was the oldest of eight children. Her family trained their daughters to have a profession, to be entertainers, i.e. geisha. From the age of five she learned Japanese classical dance and the yakumo koto, a zither-like instrument.

When she was ten her family fell into debt. She married a man twenty years older than her and endured ten years of marriage, then decided to get a divorce. She was at her wits’ end and broke when in 1902 she heard that a Japanese impresario was looking for dancers for an exposition in Copenhagen. The impresario arranged her passage from Yokohama to Marseilles and overland to Copenhagen. After the Expo ended she formed a troupe of Japanese players and toured Germany, performing plays with titles like Bushido and Hara-kiri, playing to western preconceptions of Japan as a land of samurai.

Then they toured England. Hanako was performing at London’s Savoy Theatre when she was spotted by the American dancer and impresario Loie Fuller.

In her memoir, Fuller described her first glimpse of Hanako on stage: ‘She was suddenly able to transform herself with little movements which froze all the anguish of terror into her features. She was pretty, delicate, strange, and stood out even among her fellow countrymen.’ As for her death scene, ‘She was devastating.’
Painting by Ben Ali Haggin: Mme Hanako. 1910.
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Fuller became her manageress. She didn’t think Hanako’s plays were powerful enough so she wrote some ‘Japanese’ plays herself. Each play ended in hara-kiri - not women’s suicide, cutting one’s throat, but cutting open the belly. It was completely inauthentic but westerners didn’t know or care.

Fuller took Hanako off to Paris, where she performed The Martyr and other plays, all from Fuller’s prolific pen. She was a huge success. Every play ended with the heroine’s suicide. Hanako cut open her belly with a sword so enthusiastically that the audience in the front rows were sprayed with fake blood.

A reviewer in L’Illustration, November 3 1906, wrote, ‘Hanako is a tiny Japanese gifted with graceful form, lively eyes, a rebellious nose, feline movements.’ Her death is ‘almost too realistic.’

‘An expression of cold terrible rage.’
Back in Paris after that fateful meeting in Marseilles, Rodin invited Hanako to lunch at his atelier, where he asked her to sit for him. He was burning to make a mask of her anguish as she was ‘dying’, to capture the intense expressivity of her face.
Head of Death showing nirami

After that Fuller drove Hanako to Rodin’s atelier every day for half an hour before the afternoon performance. Hanako didn’t speak French or English and Rodin didn’t speak Japanese. Hanako remembered that he followed her obsessively, demanding that she hold her face still without moving a muscle.

‘When I even moved my eyes,’ she remembered, ‘he shouted, “Stop, don’t move your eyes!” He tried to create my head of death with that cross-eyed look I made on the stage. It was difficult to hold the same expression every day. People warned me that my eyes were getting funny.’

Judith Cladel, Rodin’s biographer, writes, ‘Hanako did not pose like other people. Her features were contracted in an expression of cold terrible rage. She had the look of a tiger, an expression completely foreign to our Occidental countenances. With the force of will which the Japanese display in the face of death, Hanako was enabled to hold this look for hours.’

In later years Hanako told her family that it took a tremendous effort to maintain this pose, which was completely opposite to her normally cheerful disposition. ‘Afterwards,’ she said, ‘I was in a good mood for days.’
Head of Death
with nirami

Far from being evidence of a peculiarly Japanese ‘force of will’, Hanako’s expression of ‘cold terrible anger’ was actually a standard kabuki pose called nirami, where one eye turns inward while the other stares straight ahead. A kabuki actor can hold nirami for 20 - 30 seconds. Hanako said she could stay cross-eyed for 3 to 5 minutes. But Rodin forced her to hold this expression for half an hour. No wonder her eyes were going funny!
It took 67 attempts before Rodin was satisfied that he had her eyes right. He finished the first Head of Death in September 1906 and went on to create many more.

That summer, during the theatre off season, Hanako stayed at Rodin’s home in the Paris suburbs. She was relaxing in the garden when he ran out shouting, ‘Don’t move, don’t move.’ He grabbed his pencil and declared he was going to make a mask of A Meditating Woman.

‘After that he spent every morning making Head of Death and every afternoon making Meditating Woman,’ she remembered. For him it was a new lease of life.

Meditating Woman
For the next twelve years she stayed at Rodin’s every summer for 3 months, living like a member of the family. His dog slept in her room. If he ‘found her purse thin’ he gave her money. In Paris his acolytes and admirers introduced her to artists, socialites and politicians. She mixed in glamorous circles and was invited to many parties. ‘I was fascinated by the flowery social life of Paris,’ she wrote, ‘and every day was a dream.’

There were rumours that she was his lover, because they were seen on walks together. But there’s no evidence for that, added to which Hanako was also close to Madame Rodin. The old man must have appreciated the company of this bright, lively, cheerful young woman.

Hanako continued to tour. She performed all over Europe, including Sweden and Russia, and went twice to the United States. She wrote letter after letter to Rodin and sent him photographs of herself. And she always came back to Paris and resumed modelling for him.

Hanako’s last meeting with Rodin and Mme Rodin was in 1915, at the start of World War 1, when they were staying outside London and came to see her perform. Rodin died in 1917. Hanako - who must have been 50 by then - visited his tomb the next year at Meudon and wept when his dog wagged its tail when it saw her.
Photograph signed
‘To Monsieur Rodin
With lots of love from Hanako.'

She had never charged Rodin for all the modelling she did for him. The one thing he promised was that he would give her two masks - a Head of Death and a Meditating Woman. But World War I intervened and he died without doing so.

After the war she wrote again and again to his secretary and even to members of the French government and finally received the two busts.

Back in Japan, she lived in a geisha house in Gifu run by one of her younger sisters, where she was rather celebrated. Many famous artists came to visit and admire her masks. She adopted her nephew, Ohta Hideo, who married and had a child, Masako. She spent her last years doting on this granddaughter of hers, who remembers that Hanako was so tiny she had to have clogs specially made for her little feet.

Hanako died on April 2 1945, at the age of 77 - the same age that Rodin had been when he died.

Lesley Downer is a lover of all things Asian and an inveterate traveller. She is the author of many books on Japan, including The Shogun’s Queen, an epic tale of love and death, out now in paperback. For more see

The Rodin exhibition at the Tate Modern in London continues until November 21 2021.

The pictures as indicated are courtesy of Wiki Commons. The other photographs are mine.

1 comment:

Penny Dolan said...

Thank you for this glimpse into history, Lesley. What an incredible woman she was!

I was particularly interested in that odd look: "Hanako’s expression of ‘cold terrible anger’ was actually a standard kabuki pose called nirami, where one eye turns inward while the other stares straight ahead."

I have always been puzzled by one of an inherited set of three prints (possibly once a single sheet) where the the sword-carrying hero character wears the same partially cross-eyed expression.

Good wishes for The Shogun's Queen.