Japan’s Edo Period began in 1615, when Ieyasu, the first Tokugawa shogun, defeated his rivals, establishing firm control over Japan. For more than 250 years, Japan enjoyed peace, stability, and prosperity. Wealthy urban centers arose, dominated by merchants. This newly rich merchant class challenged the aristocracy’s control over artistic production, demanding different kinds of art that reflected their own aesthetic values. While the traditional No plays remained popular, people flocked to the new Kabuki theaters. These theaters and a new form of art-the woodblock print (ukiyo-e)-were among the most prominent new art forms.
The brilliantly colored ukiyo-e prints in this exhibition center on many aspects of the Kabuki theatre. They depict scenes from the highly stylized dramas, images of popular actors enacting scenes that they made famous, and an introduction to the many stories of tragedy, romance, and revenge that were depicted in the Kabuki plays.
All of the prints were produced between 1820-1865 at the Utagawa School, the nineteenth century’s leading kabuki-print workshop. The school employed hundreds of artists and trained many preeminent painters and printmakers, including Hiroshige (1797-1858), Kuniyoshi (1797-1861), and Kunisada (1786-1864). These maters captured not only the actors’ appearances but also the particular movements, poses, and mannerisms unique to each. The prints’ vigorous and compelling images-alive with drama, vibrant with color, and intense with emotion-are like stage sets themselves, invitations into the lively and fascinating world of nineteenth-century Japanese art and theater.
The prints are on loan to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts from the Japan-Virginia Society. They were presented to the Society by the Utagawaha Monjinkai, a group that supports the artists and programs of the Utagawa School.