Japan Society Gallery Revisits a Master Storyteller-Forerunner to Today's Manga Artists

Jan 15th 2010

New York - Thrashing sea creatures, samurai warriors, and a giant, looming skeleton are among the distinguishing subjects of the brashest of Japan's Ukiyo-e masters, Utagawa Kuniyoshi, whose populist oeuvre is to be presented by Japan Society Gallery from March 12 to June 13, 2010.

Fresh from its spring 2009 showing at London's Royal Academy of Arts, where it was the surprise smash hit of the season, Graphic Heroes, Magic Monsters: Japanese Prints by Utagawa Kuniyoshi from the Arthur R. Miller Collection marks the first major exhibition of Kuniyoshi's work in the United States in nearly 30 years. The exhibition has been organized by the Royal Academy in collaboration with Arthur R. Miller and The British Museum. The vast majority of the 150 color woodblock prints on display are from the Arthur R. Miller Collection, New York, generously loaned to Japan Society by the American Friends of the British Museum.

Like Hokusai, Hiroshige, and other masters of the school of Ukiyo-e printmaking ("Pictures of the Floating World"), Utagawa Kuniyoshi pursued the themes of landscape, kabuki theater, and beautiful women. He was unique, however, in his mastery of lesser known subjects: action-packed tales drawn from the history, religion, folklore, and myths of Japan, China, and other Asian countries; comic "crazy pictures" often featuring animals impersonating humans; and exotic experiments with foreign subject-matter and European techniques of visual representation.

"Kuniyoshi's work can be seen as foreshadowing the visual storytelling of contemporary manga, anime, and computer and video games," says Joe Earle, Director of Japan Society Gallery and organizer of the exhibition. "Like a number of the top creators in these genres of today, he was an eccentric who specialized in comic figures and action scenes sold in vast numbers at low prices to an insatiable and visually sophisticated audience."

Kuniyoshi practiced as a woodblock printmaker during the Tokugawa shogunate, which routinely censored popular printed materials. "There is a sense in which censorship spurred Kuniyoshi's imagination, as he sought to circumvent the government bans," says Earle. Certainly, the artist became adept at applying his graphic inventiveness to the coding of political meaning into seemingly innocuous scenes.

While his narratives may have toed the official line, their veiled subtexts were only too clear to his fellow townspeople. One of the prints on view, created in 1843 during a particularly stringent period of repression, became a cause célèbre for its version of a tale about the evil Earth Spider, who conjured up a battle between rival armies of demons to torment the ailing warrior hero Yorimitsu. Viewers identified Yorimitsu with Japan's ineffectual shogun, Tokugawa Ieyoshi, and the print was widely interpreted-and pirated-as a hanji-mono ("riddle picture") slyly satirizing current-day reforms.

At this point, government censorship even extended to the portrayal of beautiful courtesans and geisha entertainers, hitherto among the most lucrative genres for print publishers. Kuniyoshi responded to this challenge with graceful prints of beauties designed for round summer fans (uchiwa), hanging scroll paintings, and a number of original series. The exhibition features selections from ten such series, which ostensibly offer virtuous models of feminine behavior while satisfying the popular appetite for pictures of attractive women in a variety of situations.

The bravura of Kuniyoshi's picture-making is particularly evident in his prints of battles and other manly struggles. Muscular tattooed warriors are shown in dramatic combat in the series 108 Heroes of the Popular Water Margin; the warrior Morozumi Masakiyo is shown at just the moment he kills himself in battle in an extraordinary fractured design (1848); a crowd of figures is depicted in the battle on the roof of Horyu tower from one of the best-loved scenes of a popular novel (1840); and a giant skeleton thrillingly occupies three quarters of a triptych in Mitsukuni Defies the Skeleton Specter Conjured up by Princess Takiyashi (1845/46).

One of Kuniyoshi's greatest innovations, in fact, was to spread a large motif across all three sheets of a three-sheet format, unifying the composition and heightening the visual drama. In one print in the exhibition, created in 1851/52, he also brilliantly exploited the extremely unusual format of a vertical triptych to show the monk Mongaku doing penance for murder under the great Nachi Waterfall: daringly, the middle panel of this triptych shows only water and rock.

The huge public appetite for Kuniyoshi's prints may be gauged by the print run of one series represented in the exhibition. Issued in 1847 and 1848, Biographies of Loyal and Righteous Hearts comprised 51 prints packed with gruesome detail and bold action: 8,000 impressions of each print were sold, for a whopping total of 408,000 sheets.

When Kuniyoshi opens at the Japan Society in New York on March 12, the young manga artist Hiroki Otsuka will be stationed in a work space within the gallery for about 20 hours a week, drawing his own manga inspired by Kuniyoshi's story telling.

Arthur R. Miller Collection
Professor Arthur R. Miller, one of America's leading lawyers and legal scholars, was an associate at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton in New York before his move into teaching at Columbia University School of Law, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Michigan. In 1971 he joined Harvard Law School, where he became Bruce Bromley Professor of Law. Since 2007 Professor Miller has been University Professor in the School of Law at New York University and last year he became Special Counsel to Milberg LLP. A renowned commentator on law and society, he appeared on "Good Morning America" for two decades as its legal editor and on PBS in several celebrated seminars. He received two Emmy awards for his work as host of several TV series and has published more than forty books. An avid art-lover, Professor Miller has been collecting prints by Kuniyoshi for nearly thirty years. In 2008 he began to donate his collection of nearly two thousand prints to the American Friends of the British Museum. The collection is presently on loan to the British Museum.

About the Curator
Joe Earle joined Japan Society in September 2007 as Vice President and Gallery Director. He is a graduate of Oxford University, where he studied Chinese Language and Literature before joining the Far Eastern Department of the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1974, specializing in Japanese art and design. In 1983, he was appointed Keeper of the Far Eastern Department, the youngest person ever to hold such a post in a UK national museum. He led a project to establish a major permanent Japanese gallery at the V&A, and in early 1987 he transferred to the new post of Head of Public Affairs. In 1990, Earle began working as a consultant to the UK's Japan Festival 1991 and especially its flagship exhibition Visions of Japan, whose commissioning architect was Arata Isozaki. Throughout the 1990s he organized a wide range of exhibitions in the United Kingdom, Japan, United States, and Europe, and catalogued numerous private collections of Japanese art, serving as consultant to major museums, auction houses, galleries, collectors, and dealers. In February 2003 he was named the first Chair of the Department of Art of Asia, Oceania, and Africa at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

About Japan Society Gallery
Japan Society Gallery is among the premier institutions in the U.S. for the exhibition of Japanese art. Extending in scope from prehistory to the present, the Gallery's exhibitions since 1971 have covered topics as diverse as classical Buddhist sculpture and calligraphy, contemporary photography and ceramics, samurai swords, export porcelain, and masterpieces of painting from the thirteenth to the twentieth century. Each exhibition, with its related catalogue and public programs, is a unique cultural event that illuminates familiar and unfamiliar fields of art. From 2008 the Gallery has expanded its annual schedule, adding a shorter, small-scale exhibition each summer to the existing program of major three-month exhibitions each spring and fall. In fall 2009, Japan Society Gallery presents its 100th exhibition Serizawa: Master of Japanese Textile Design (October 9, 2009- January 17, 2010).

About Japan Society
Established in 1907, Japan Society has evolved into North America's major producer of high-quality content on Japan for an English-speaking audience. Presenting over 100 events annually through well established Corporate, Education, Film, Gallery, Language, Lectures, Performing Arts and Innovators Network programs, the Society is an internationally recognized nonprofit, nonpolitical organization that provides access to information on Japan, offers opportunities to experience Japanese culture, and fosters sustained and open dialogue on issues important to the U.S., Japan, and East Asia.

Japan Society is located at 333 East 47th Street between First and Second Avenues (accessible by the 4/5/6 and 7 subway at Grand Central or the E and V subway at Lexington Avenue). The public may call 212-832-1155 or visit www.japansociety.org for more information.

Japan Society Gallery hours: Tuesday through Thursday, 11:00 am-6:00 pm; Friday, 11:00 am-9:00 pm; Saturday and Sunday, 11:00 am-5:00 pm; the Gallery is closed on Mondays and major holidays (Nov. 26, Dec 25, Jan 1). Admission: $10/$8 students and seniors/FREE Japan Society members and children under 16. Admission is Free! to all on Friday nights, 6:00-9:00 pm.


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