Exhibition | Golden Age of Kabuki Prints

Posted in exhibitions by Editor on January 11, 2022

Opening this week at the AIC:

The Golden Age of Kabuki Prints
Art Institute of Chicago, 15 January — 10 April 2022 / 16 April — 26 June 2022

Katsukawa Shunshō 勝川 春章, The Actor Nakamura Nakazo I as Osada no Taro in the Play ‘Ima o Sakari Suehiro Genji’ (‘The Genji Clan Now at Its Zenith’), 1763–73, color woodblock print (hosoban), 31 × 14 (Chicago: AIC, Clarence Buckingham Collection, 1938.479).

The Kabuki theater district of 18th-century Edo (modern-day Tokyo) was one of the centers of urban life.

At the theater, people could escape the rigid confines of a society controlled by the shogunal government and watch their favorite actors perform in dramas that were often based on ancient historical events and myths. These were tales of murder, revenge, infamy, jealousy, and, sometimes even, redemption.

Along with the dramatic subject matter, Kabuki theater is characterized by its highly stylized postures, movements, hand gestures, facial expressions, even makeup. All these elements are exaggerated to heighten narrative impact. Perhaps the most renowned aspect of Kabuki is the mie, an emphatic pose struck by an actor at a crucial point in the action. Mie often comprise amplified scowls or dramatic twists of the face with crossed eyes and are accompanied by specific body posturing and particular hand and limb positions. Such intense expressions and poses made striking and popular subjects for prints.

The drama of Kabuki theater was most successfully conveyed in the prints of the Katsukawa School of artists because they captured the individual characteristics of each actor. Kabuki actors were the celebrities of their time, and prints depicting them found an eager audience in their fans. Founded by Katsukawa Shunshō (1726–1792), the Katsukawa school included several prominent artists, all of whom created portraits of actors performing in popular Kabuki plays in Edo, though almost all of these prints show the actors in a realistic setting—on the street or under a flowering tree—rather than on a stage. The best-known artists of the school, in addition to Shunsho, were Katsukawa Shunkō (1743–1812) and Shun’ei (1762–1819). This exhibition includes examples by all three of these artists and is drawn from the more than 700 Katsukawa School prints in the Art Institute’s collection.

This exhibition will consist of two rotations, the first running 15 January – 10 April 2022, and the second covering 16 April – 26 June 2022; the gallery will be closed April 11–15.

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