This stunning new exhibition of prints by Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) is an exciting follow up to the Lady Lever Art Gallery’s previous exhibition, Edo-Pop.
Kunichika was one of the most important 19th century print makers in Japan. Born in Edo (present day Toyko), Kunichika was trained by Utagawa Kunisada (1786 -1865), a leading print maker of the time, and went on to be a highly original master in his own right. Best known for his depictions of the Kabuki theatre, capturing the drama and excitement of scenes from popular plays and famous actors, this exhibition is the first outside of Japan to focus on the work of Kunichika.
Sixty-eight of his hand-printed single, double and triptych prints will feature at the Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight in Kunichika: Japanese Prints, from 15 April 2022 – 4 September 2022. These will include behind-the-scenes dressing room views, on-stage dramatic moments and close-up portraits of actors, as well as ten prints selected from his various series of ‘female beauties’. Kunichika embraced modern subjects and his prints reflected the great social and political change in Japan at time.
Kunichika collector and guest curator, Frank Milner, said:
I am delighted that the Lady Lever Art Gallery will be hosting the Toyohara Kunichika display. Kunichika was a fascinating and complex artist working and responding to the enormous technological and social changes that took place in Japan during his working life. He worked closely with leading kabuki actors who, like him, had to adapt to the creative and destructive opportunities and challenges in the new Japan.
I think Manet and Degas, when they saw Japanese prints, recognized kindred artists on the other side of the world dealing with the same new phenomena as themselves - the awful and exciting modern city brimming with humanity and needing to be captured in a new visual way.
I like it too - but then that may be because I am old and sentimental - that Van Gogh, among the pitifully few possessions that he had with him in 1890, when he died in his little attic bedroom in Auvers, after his failed suicide attempt, had about 15 Japanese prints with him. These included two by Kunichika.
During this century there has been a revival of interest in Kunichika's work and this exhibition will contribute to the ongoing re-evaluation of his place in Japanese print history.
Dave Moffat, Assistant Curator (Decorative Art), National Museums Liverpool said
The introductory section of the exhibition will include a small group of prints by both Kunichika and his mentor, showing their master/pupil inter-relationship and indicating how Kunichika came to inherit Kunisada's mantle as the leading actor print maker of his time.
The Kunichika prints in the exhibition include several of his individual and group actor portraits but also a number of lesser known kabuki scenes from what were modern contemporary kabuki plays that highlighted up-to the-minute issues like Western clothing, hairstyles, fashions and manners. They also explore the troubling social anxieties and conflict between the old versus the new in a rapidly modernising capital city.
The timely exhibition will overlap with Kyōsai: The Israel Goldman Collection at the Royal Academy next Spring. Kunichika was both a drinking companion and artistic rival of Kawanabe Kyosai (1831 -1889), an allegiance which saw Kyosai and Kunichika collaborate on at least one series of prints.
National Museums Liverpool has also commissioned a range of limited-edition gifts and homeware featuring Kunichika’s work, which will be available exclusively at the Lady Lever Art Gallery shop and via the online shop.
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