Major Exhibition of 130 Works by "Godfather of Manga" at Japan Society Gallery

Jan 26th 2010

Japan Society's Spring Exhibit Showcases 150 Works by Legendary 19th Century Print Maker Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Forerunner to Today's Manga Artists

Graphic Heroes, Magic Monsters: Japanese Prints by Utagawa Kuniyoshi from the Arthur R. Miller Collection

March 12-June 13, 2010, at Japan Society Gallery

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 (1797-1861), 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 of Arts in collaboration with Arthur R. Miller and The British Museum. The vast majority of over 130 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 last decades of 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) and a number of original series which ostensibly offered 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 early 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 Takiyasha i (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 Samurai 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.

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 in 2008 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

Timothy Clark is Head of the Japanese Section in the Department of Asia at The British Museum. He was educated at Oxford, Harvard and Gakushuin universities and joined the staff of the British Museum in 1987. In 1998 he was awarded the Uchiyama Susumu Prize by the International Ukiyo-e Society. He has recently curated the new permanent displays Japan from Prehistory to Present, which opened in the Mitsubishi Corporation Japanese Galleries at the British Museum in October 2006. He has authored and edited many works on subjects relating to Japanese art, including ukiyo-e painting, Kyosai, Utamaro, early ukiyo-e, images of Mt Fuji, Hokusai, Osaka ukiyo-e and Kuniyoshi. In 2009 he curated and wrote the catalogue for the highly successful exhibition Kuniyoshi from the Arthur R. Miller Collection, held at the Royal Academy of Arts, London. His other research interests include the Maruyama-Shijo School of painting and the development of the art market and exhibitions in pre-modern Kyoto; also the history of erotic art (shunga) in Japan.

Related Programming

Konnichiwa Friends Family Tours of Graphic Heroes, Magic Monsters
Saturdays, March 13, April 10, May 15, June 12, 2 pm-3 pm

Slated for the second Saturday of every month between March and June, this series of tours engages young children ages 2-4 and their families in fun, interactive learning experiences. Using games, puzzles, storytelling, and other techniques for discussing art and culture, these tours explore exhibition themes and include Japanese vocabulary and language acquisition activities. Tickets: Free with adult admission to the exhibition; no reservation required. For more information call 212-715-1224.

Symposium - Graphic Heroes, Magic Monsters: Japanese prints by Utagawa Kuniyoshi from the Arthur R. Miller Collection
Saturday, April 17, 2010 at 1 pm

Organized in collaboration with the Japanese Art Society of America and supported by the Japanese Art Dealers' Association, this half-day symposium brings together exhibition curator, Timothy Clark, Head of the Japanese Section in the Department of Asia at The British Museum, Dr. Sarah Thompson, Curator of Japanese Prints at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston and Edward Kamens, Sumitomo Professor of Japanese Studies, Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures, Yale University, to discuss and contextualize Kuniyoshi's work within historical and art-historical frameworks. Moderated by Joe Earle, Vice President and Director, Japan Society Gallery. Tickets: $11/$7 Japan Society and Japanese Art Society of America members, seniors & students (includes exhibition entry). For tickets call the Box Office at 212-715-1258.

Art Cart: The Magic of Printmaking
Sunday, May 16, 2010, 2-4 pm

Led by a Japan Society educator, children and their families participate in a gallery lesson focused on child-friendly themes contained Graphic Heroes, Magic Monsters, such as mythological creatures, pretty ladies, super-heroes and outdoor places. In the hands-on portion of the program, participants handle old Japanese woodblocks and printmaking tools as an aid to understanding the printmaking process, and make vegetable prints to create patterned works on paper to take home. Recommended for children ages 8-12 years old. Tickets: $15 per family (up to five people), $10 per family, including at least one Japan Society member. For tickets call the Box Office at 212-715-1258.

Catalogue

Written by curator Timothy Clark, this beautifully illustrated exhibition catalogue presents a selection of Kuniyoshi's finest prints in high-quality reproductions. With over 200 illustrations, the catalogue explores Kuniyoshi's process and wide-ranging subject matter, from portraits of warriors and fashionable beauties to satirical themes and landscapes. 303 pages, 11 ¼ x 10 ¼ in., published by the Royal Academy of Arts, London. Available at Japan Society, www.japansociety.org.

Organizers & Sponsors

Graphic Heroes, Magic Monsters: Japanese Prints by Utagawa Kuniyoshi from the Arthur R. Miller Collection has been organized by the Royal Academy of Arts in collaboration with Arthur R. Miller and The British Museum. Support for this exhibition at Japan Society is provided by Chris A. Wachenheim, Edward and Anne Studzinski, and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, in partnership with the City Council. Education programs for Graphic Heroes, Magic Monsters are funded by the Japanese Art Dealers Association. Media sponsorship is provided by WNYC. Exhibitions at Japan Society are made possible in part by the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Endowment Fund, and the Friends of the Gallery, and with ongoing support from the New York State Council on the Arts, a State agency. Japan Society also wishes to thank The W.L.S. Spencer Foundation for its catalogue support.

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.

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-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. Admission: $12/$10 students and seniors/FREE Japan Society members and children under 16. Admission is free to all on Friday nights, 6:00-9:00 pm. Docent tours are available free with admission Tuesday-Sunday at 12:30 pm.


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