Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861), one of the last great masters of the Japanese color woodcut who gained particular renown for his warrior prints, will be celebrated in Heroes & Ghosts: Japanese Prints by Kuniyoshi, 1797-1861, an exhibition of some 125 woodblock prints drawn from public and private collections in Europe and the U.S. On view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art from April 25 to June 28, 1998, the exhibition honors the bicentennial of the artist's birth. Heroes & Ghosts was organized by the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, in collaboration with the Society for Japanese Arts and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In Philadelphia, the only U.S. venue for the exhibition, it will be installed by John Ittmann, Curator of Prints.
Born in Edo (now Tokyo), Kuniyoshi showed an early aptitude for drawing. By age 15, he was an apprentice in the studio of Utagawa Toyokuni, one of the most popular artists of his day of the woodblock prints known as ukiyo-e ("pictures of the floating world"). Throughout his career, Kuniyoshi excelled in the production of popular ukiyo-e subjects: portraits of actors, depictions of beautiful women, landscapes, and images of popular amusements such as the kabuki theater and sumo wrestling. He first came into his own as an original and innovative designer in 1827 when a publisher commissioned him to produce a suite of 50 prints of heroes in the Suikoden—stories of a legendary band of rebellious warriors based on medieval Chinese legend—that were hugely successful with the tale's many admirers. In addition to being the first artist to produce popular prints of these part historical, part fictional warriors, Kuniyoshi was the most important 19th-century designer of "ghost prints" characterized by dramatic and chilling apparitions seeking vengeance for past wrongs, and also produced a significant group of comic compositions.
Japanese printmaking was at its height in the Edo period, which lasted from the mid-17th to the mid-19th century, a time when Japan was largely isolated from the outside world. It was only with the opening of Japan to Western contact and commerce in around 1850 that these images become known— and greatly sought after—by collectors, artists, and museums in Europe and, slightly later, the United States.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art was a natural collaborator in this project, with its large and distinguished collection of over 4,000 Japanese prints, thanks to the early interest of local collectors, donors, and print curators. The strengths of the Museum's collection range from master works by Harunobu, the artist who first developed the full-color print in the mid-1760s, to the largest collection of works outside Japan by Yoshitoshi, Kuniyoshi's pupil and arguably the last great ukiyo-e artist.
Funding for Heroes & Ghosts: Japanese Prints by Kuniyoshi (l797-1861) has been provided in part by Felicity R. and Peter A. Benoliel and The Pew Charitable Trusts. The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue written by Robert Schaap and containing some 300 color illustrations. It was produced by the Society for Japanese Arts.
The following programs will accompany the exhibition. For reservations and more information, call (215) 235-SHOW.
Guided tours of the exhibition are offered to the public on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays at 12:00 noon beginning on April 28. Free with Museum admission. For group tours, call (215) 684-7863.
Lecture: History and Myth in Kuniyoshi's Prints
Lecturer: Marybeth Graybill, Associate Professor of Asian Art, Swarthmore College
Saturday, April 25, 2:30 p.m. Free after Museum admission.
Art History Course: A Celebration of the "Floating World"
Lecturer: Frank Chance, Curator of the Japanese House and Garden, Fairmount Park, Philadelphia
Thursdays, May 7,14, 21, and 28 from 1:30 to 2:30 or Saturdays, May 16 and 30, 1:30 to 3:45. Survey Japanese printmaking from the early 17th century to the late 19th century. Museum Members and senior citizens $50, non-Members $80, registration required.
Workshop on the Pictorial Narratives of Kuniyoshi
Lecturer: Elizabeth de S. Swinton, Curator of Asian Art, Worcester Art Museum, Massachusetts
Friday, May 8 from 10:30 to 12:30 or Saturday, May 9 from 10:30 to 12:30. Explore the techniques and devices the artist used. Museum Members and senior citizens $25, non-Members $40, registration required.
Sunday, May 3, 2:30. Museum Members, senior citizens, and students with I.D. $10, non-Members $17; children under 7 not admitted. The program, presented by members of the Philadelphia Orchestra, will explore how music, like the visual arts, reflects the culture from which it emerges.
Akikazu Nakamura Trio Kokoo
Sunday, April 19, 2:30. Museum Members, senior citizens, and students with I.D. $10, non-Members $17; children under 7 not admitted. This concert will present the full range of Japan's 700-year musical tradition of the shakuhachi bamboo flute and the koto zither.