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THE MUSEUM of Fine Arts, Boston, is reviving a competition between two woodblock print artists, Utagawa Kuniyoshi and Utagawa Kunisada, that began in 19th-century Japan. It’s a fascinating exhibition, especially because both of these ukiyo-o artists portrayed Kabuki actors and characters as subjects.

This and the following images from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts exhibition, “Showdown! Kuniyoshi vs. Kunisada,” runs from August 11 to December 10, 2017. Here are several examples from this exhibition with commentary gleaned from the museum website.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, 1797–1861, and Utagawa Kunisada, 1786–1864, were star pupils of (and derived their names from) Utagawa Toyokuni, 1769–1825. Their genre, ukiyo-e, “pictures of a floating world,” drew subject matter from fashionable city life in the Edo Period, 1603–1868.

Kunisada was more popular than Kuniyoshi during their lifetimes. By contrast, Kuniyoshi’s works are seen as foreshadowing today’s manga and anime. Others of his works hinted at political satire, forbidden at the time.

To aid exhibition goers in identifying their works, Kuniyoshi’s are framed in black ash; Kunisada’s, in cherry wood. Preferences can be stated for #TeamKuniyoshi or #TeamKunisada.

Nozarashi Gosuke, by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, c. 1845.

Clearing Weather, by Utagawa Kunisada, 1833.

By the mid-1800s, Kabuki had evolved into middle-class entertainment. Actor ukiyo-e prints, akin to today’s celebrity photos, were sold in sets and collected.

Takeout Sushi Suggesting Ataka, by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, c. 1844.

Three-Color Shading Made to Order, by Utagawa Kunisada, 1859.

Ukiyo-e prints were popular with the stylish people of Edo, today’s Toyko. Another use for prints was fortune telling that predicted personality and future prospects based on a person’s features.

The Origin Story of the Cat Stone at Okabe, by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, 1847.

A Modern Shuihuzhuan, by Utagawa Kunisada, 1859.

Related subjects were collected in series of triptychs. Kabuki fans would be entertained as they picked out their favorite actors or characters in the prints.

”Oh, Ouch!” and Giant Octopus from the Nameri River in Etchu, by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, 1852.

Actor Onoe Kikugoro III as a Cat Monster, by Utagawa Kunisada, 1852.

Cats and cat monsters are part of Kabuki lore. Also, though technically against the law, both Kuniyoshi and Kunisada produced erotica, often employing special pen names in these semi-secret ukiyo-e dealings with wealthy and powerful patrons.

In September 2017, MFA Publications will release two titles related to the exhibition. Kuniyoshi vs. Kunisada, by exhibition curator Sarah Thompson, will add authoratative text to the ukiyo-e images. Tattoos in Japanese Prints, also by Thompson, will focus on how ukiyo-e inspired tattoo artists in the early 19th century.

Last, Thompson will lead Curated Conversations on September 24 and November 12. Were I anywhere near Boston at that time, I’d surely enjoy the commentary. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2017

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