Kunichika – Japanese woodblock prints exhibition highlights

This exhibition of the work of Toyohara Kunichika closes very soon, for visiting information please take a look at the exhibition page.

I was delighted to visit this show of woodblock prints by Toyohara Kunichika at the Lady Lever Gallery. I had a basic familiarity with Ukiyo-e (‘Pictures of the floating world’) but to see so many works by a late master was a treat.

The first thing that strikes you is the depth of colour, these are water-based inks and I would have assumed that they can deteriorate as fast as a watercolour painting under the same conditions. This collection is therefore much loved and looked after. These prints are immaculate and vibrant, with only a few works bearing notes that certain colours had faded or changed over the years.

Kunichika’s work was the affordable, popular imagery of the day – household name theatre stars, ‘beautiful women’ pictures, scenes from well-known tales and the activities of Emperors and actors.

Detail from Seven Evil Women woodblock print by Toyohara Kunichika, 1879
Detail from Seven Evil Women woodblock print by Toyohara Kunichika, 1879

One startling set of pictures shows theatre actors in intimate settings, mopping a brow after a performance and being fanned by an attendant. These works were direct challenges to the rise of postcard-style, mass produced celebrity portrait photographs. Kunichika knew and socialised with many of the stars of the day and could depict them (with flattery) in candid, and full-colour, moments.

In another work entitled ‘Seven Evil Women’ you can see the artist’s disdain for photography. All figures in this picture are shown in dazzling attire.

One figure holds a small photograph which pales in comparison to the rest of the scene. Photography was to replace woodblock printing’s hold on celebrity imagery , and inevitably affect the livelihoods of print artists. Kunichika himself spent his last years working in a relative’s photographic shop.

‘Seven Evil Women’ is dated 1879, and shows actors playing the role of real-life women with criminal, even murderous backgrounds – ‘dokofu’ or ‘poison women’. Then as now the popular press was obsessed with the idea of women who kill, and knew money was to be made from their notoriety.

Seven Evil Women woodblock print by Toyohara Kunichika, 1879
Seven Evil Women, Toyohara Kunichika 1879

The show describes Kunichika as both an important designer and a master of his art, though reading the history of this artform – and not unlike others – both the genre and the individual’s importance have been reinvigorated by rediscovery and the appreciation of modern collectors.

As for mastery, each print is inked and impressed by hand, though this was probably undertaken by a team. Nevertheless the skill in design and the fineness of line is impressive. One good example of this is in the image ‘Nakamura Shikan as the boatman Matsuemon’ of 1883. Kunichika has employed multiple blocks and different ink tones to mimic the effect of fine brushwork.

Close up of ink and brush effect achieved with woodblocks from Nakamura Shikan as the boatman Matsuemon, 1883
Close up of ink and brush effect achieved with woodblocks from Nakamura Shikan as the boatman Matsuemon, 1883
Nakamura Shikan as the boatman Matsuemon, 1883
Nakamura Shikan as the boatman Matsuemon, Toyohara Kunichika, 1883

A final delight are the works that depict actors in the roles of famous westerners, my favourite of these was ‘Baiko as the balloonist Percival Spencer

Woodblock print 'Baiko as balloonist Percival Spencer', from 'One hundred roles for Baiko', 1894
Baiko as balloonist Percival Spencer, from ‘One hundred roles for Baiko’, 1894

As is always the case with The Lady Lever Art Gallery (and particularly their print shows) the exhibition is beautifully presented, the context boards and related materials describe the man (alcoholism, womanising, misspent youth and all) and the period in a way that really brings the pieces and their subjects to life.

All photographs in this post were taken on site at the exhibition, so show some reflection from gallery lighting and do not do the pieces justice. Of course, no flash was used.

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