Today at the Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight, an exhibition of prints by Japanese artist Kunichika opens. It is the first exhibition in a national gallery outside of Japan to focus on his work.
It is showing 68 of Kunichika’s hand-printed prints, featuring 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’.
birkenhead.news spoke to art historian, Kunichika collector, and guest curator, Frank Milner who owns the prints that are on display.
Frank explained that the prints were bought by fans of the actors they portrayed in much the same way as children today may buy posters of the latest pop idol and pin them to their bedroom walls.
The prints were often released in conjunction with a particular play that the actors were performing in and in the play was successful, many thousands of prints would be sold.
For the less successful plays that may have run for just a few weeks, the print run would be similarly short. Some of the prints had only a limited run, maybe around 1,000; others had runs into the tens of thousands.
The prints vary slightly in style as fashions changed over the years, from what to the layman would be considered traditional eastern aesthetics to far more geometric and stylised images.
Frank pointed out a particular print of a soldier using his sword to deflect a bullet. The resulting sparks abstractly depicted as an explosion of beams of red light would certainly not seem out of place in modern-day Manga.
Frank told us that printmakers such as Kunichika would set up store outside theatres when performances were taking place, to ensure a captive stream of potential buyers, in much the same way as you see sellers of scarves and football souvenirs outside football stadia today.
About Toyohara Kunichika
Kunichika (30 June 1835 – 1 July 1900) was one of the most important 19th-century printmakers in Japan. Born in Edo (present-day Toyko), Kunichika was trained by Utagawa Kunisada (1786 -1865), a leading printmaker 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, Kunichika embraced modern subjects and his prints reflected the great social and political change in Japan at the time.
The timely exhibition will overlap with Kyōsai: The Israel Goldman Collection at the Royal Academy this Spring. Kunichika was both a drinking companion and artistic rival of Kawanabe Kyosai (1831 -1889), an allegiance that saw Kyosai and Kunichika collaborate on at least one series of prints.
A spokesperson for the Lady Lever Art Gallery said, “If visitors enjoy Kunichika: Japanese Prints, we’re asking them to pay what they think is appropriate, to support our museums and art galleries.
“Visitor contributions enable us to offer a rich programme of exhibitions and events, supports us in caring for our priceless collections and reaching thousands of young people each year.”
Kunichika: Japanese Prints is at the Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight, until 4 September 2022
Images: As individually credited: © Gareth Jones and www.fotopiaimages.com
Main image: Frank Milner at the Lady Lever Art Gallery Credit: www.fotopiaimages.com