12 January - 12 May 2019

Masters of Japanese prints: Life in the city

In Japan in the Edo period (1603-1868), the Shōgun (military dictator) ruled over a hierarchical society. At the top were the samurai warrior class and regional lords (daimyō), then came farmers, and at the bottom, merchants and other townspeople.

Japanese cities, especially Edo (today’s Tokyo), grew rapidly. Despite being lowest in the social order, many merchants and townspeople were comfortably off. They could afford fine fashion, trips to restaurants and the kabuki theatre as well as the services of courtesans (high-class prostitutes).

City residents and visitors were avid customers for images of these city pleasures, or ‘floating world’ as it was sometimes called. This fuelled a boom in woodblock printing, as artists worked with publishers and print workshops to supply demand.

This exhibition is selected from Bristol Museum’s collection of 500 Japanese woodblock prints.

This exhibition is the second of three that will showcase Bristol Museum & Art Gallery’s Japanese woodblock prints, one of the top five regional collections in the UK.

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This exhibition was developed with a Jonathan Ruffer Curatorial Research Grant from Art Fund. Thank you to our Exhibition Sponsor Inside Japan.

Thriving cities

By the 1700s Japan’s capital city Edo (now known as Tokyo) had more than a million inhabitants. It was one of the largest cities in the world. Kyoto, the former capital and the trading city Naniwa (now known as Osaka) each had over 300,000 citizens.

All these townspeople needed to be fed, housed and entertained. Woodblock prints give us glimpses into the complex urban life of Japan at the time.

Map of Japan with detail of area including Mount Fuji, Kyoto, Osaka and Edo.

City entertainments

People in Edo (Tokyo) and other cities could enjoy a wide range of entertainments. They could watch performances of theatre, puppet theatre and acrobatics, visit temples and shrines and take part in the many seasonal fairs and festivals.

For those with money, fashion and shopping were important pastimes. Customers could purchase an ever-changing range of elegant goods although they had to be careful not to be seen to be too lavish or to ‘get above their station’ socially. The government of the Shōgun (military dictator) passed many laws to regulate spending (‘sumptuary laws’), aiming to control society and to avoid political threats.

Eating and drinking

Residents of the capital Edo (Tokyo) and other Japanese cities had many options for eating and drinking out. This was one of the pleasures of city life for those who could afford it.

People could enjoy refreshments at tea-houses and restaurants at scenic spots on river-banks and by temples. For a novel experience, they could climb aboard a floating restaurant.

The large number of single men who lived in Edo on a temporary basis as followers of daimyō (feudal lords) probably boosted the trade in fast foods such as sushi, noodles and deep-fried tempura.

Women of the ‘pleasure districts’

Japanese cities had high levels of prostitution. Depending on their wealth, men could buy a range of sexual services from women and men.

The government created special districts for prostitution in Edo (Tokyo), Osaka and Kyoto to try to keep the industry under control. Edo’s ‘pleasure district’, the Yoshiwara, was surrounded by a moat and had only one entrance. It contained brothels, theatres and tea-houses, a ‘floating world’ set apart from real life.

High-ranking courtesans (prostitutes) paraded through the streets of the ‘pleasure districts’ wearing the latest fashions to attract customers. They were among the celebrities of their age, and people bought colourful woodblock prints of this aspect of city life. However, prostitutes of any rank had little chance of leaving their employment, they were effectively enslaved.

Geisha also worked in the ‘pleasure districts’. They were professional entertainers, skilled in the arts of music and conversation and forbidden from selling sexual services.

Kabuki theatre

Kabuki theatre was one of the most popular entertainments in Edo (Toyko), Osaka and Kyoto. Theatre fans loved watching actors and musicians perform the plays which combined stylised drama and dance.

Customers were eager to buy souvenirs of their favourite actors in particular roles. Publishing houses sold more woodblock prints relating to kabuki than any other subject. They worked with artists and craftsmen to develop attractive colour images.

Individual actors belonged to different acting families, often starting to work as young children. From 1629 only male actors were allowed to perform in kabuki so all female parts were played by men.

A Japanese print of an actor standing, wearing traditional robes. He has two staffs in his belt and holds a bamboo box.

The actor Ichikawa Monnosuke I, about 1721 by Torii Kiyotada (worked 1720–50)

A Japanese print of an actor dressed in traditional robes by a tree. Two swords are visible and he holds a bird of prey on his left arm.

The actor Matsumoto Sankichi with a hawk, about 1760 by Torii Kiyomitsu I (1735-85)

A Japanese print of a man standing and dressed in traditional robes holding an abacus.

Iwai Hanshirō IV as Hisamatsu, 1788 by Katsukawa Shunkō (1743-1821)

A Japanese print of an actor stood in a dramatic pose in samurai costume.

The actor Nakamura Jūzō II, 1773 by Katsukawa Shunkō (1743–1821)

A Japanese print of two actors dressed in traditional robes. One is seated and is draped in a black cloak, holding a fan, two swords are visible. The other stands behind him and is holding a dish.

The actor Ichikawa Danjūrō V as Sakata Kintoki [right] and Sawamura Sōjurō III as Minamoto no Raik¯o [left ], 1781 by Katsukawa Shunshō (1726–1793)

Japanese print of an older actor, dressed in traditional robes, looking down at a child whose hand he is holding.

The actor Ichikawa Danjūrō V and his son at a temple for a Kaichō, about 1782 by Katsukawa Shunshō (1726–1793)

A Japanese print of an actor standing, looking to one side and one hand holding the sleeve of the traditional robes.

The actor Ichikawa Komazō III as Ten-Ichi-Bō, about 1780 by Katsukawa Shun'ei (1762-1819)

A Japanese print of an actor posed legs bent, looking down. He is wearing samurai traditional robes with his swords and staff in the back of his belt.

The actor Ichikawa Danjūrō V as Tomomori, 1784 by Katsukawa Shunshō (1726–1793)

A Japanese print of an actor standing in a rural scene, looking down over the shoulder and wearing a large hat and long traditional robes.

The actor Segawa Kikunojō III as Fox Ōkiku, 1782 by Katsukawa Shunshō (1726–1793)

A Japanese print of an actor standing with one hand holding the sleeve of the long flowing traditional robes.

The actor Segawa Kikunojō III, about 1780 by Katsukawa Shunkō (1743–1821)

A Japanese print of two men in traditional dress. One is seated, by a tree, holding a stick and a hat. Standing over and looking down at him is another man with his hand on his sword.

Ichikawa Masugoro as Kanpei [left] in Act V of A Treasury of Loyal Retainers, about 1780 by Katsukawa Shunshō (1726–1793)

A black and white Japanese playbill print. The top half is Japanese text. The bottom half is a scene of many faces and figures in traditional dress.

Playbill for Season-opening Programme, Naka Theatre, Osaka, 11th month, 1812 by Okayama Shigenobu (birth and death dates unknown)

A black and white Japanese playbill print. The top half is Japanese text. The bottom half is a scene of three actors in traditional dress, two seated either side of a standing figure.

Playbill for Season-opening Programme, Kita Theatre, Kyoto, 11th month 1817 (anonymous artist)

Japanese print of a backstage scene with many actors dressed in traditional costume, on the ground floor, stairs and first floor.

Backstage at the Season-opening Performance of the Morita Theatre, Edo (Tokyo), 1812 by Utagawa Kunisada I (1786-1864)

Japanese print of a street scene. Either side of the street are buildings with banners outside, which recede away to a central vanishing point. A vast crowd of people walk towards us, in the street, dressed in traditional costume.

Theatres in Nichōmachi, 1832-38 by Utagawa Hiroshige I (1797-1858)

A Japanese print of a street scene at night, a full moon is in the sky. In the foreground there is a man dressed in colourful traditional clothes, other figures in similar clothes walk behind him, the buildings either side of the street recede.

A Moonlit Evening in the Theatre District, 1864 by Utagawa Kunisada I (1786-1864)

A Japanese print of two actors dressed in samurai costume in a fighting pose. They wield swords. In the background there is a tree, night sky and the moon.

The actor Sawamura Kunitarō II as Ushiwakamaru [Right] and Arashi Kitsusaburō I as Kumasaka Chōhan [Left], 1827 by Ganjōsai Kunihiro (active 1815–1843)

A Japanese print of a group of four actors in traditional dress in a landscape scene. To the left a female character is kneeling, arms outstretched. A child character stands in front of her. In the centre a male character looks at the child in a lunging pose. The final male character stands back but watches intently.

The actors Ichikawa Ebijūrō I as Ukisu no Iwamatsu [Right], Arashi Kitsusaburō II as the Farmer (Hyakushō) Jūsaku [Centre], Arashi Kitsuzō as Jūkichi, and Sawamura Kunitarō II as Jūsaku's Wife (Nyōbō) Okinu [Left], 1827 by Gigadō Ashiyuki (active 1814–35)

A japanese print of an actor dressed in a black kimono, arms folded and looking to the side.

The actor Segawa Kikunojō III as Ohan, 1781 by Katsukawa Shunshō (1726–1793)

A japanese print with four figures in traditional clothes. A man and a woman are in the centre. They stand over a crouching couple, the man looks down at the woman, the woman looks down at the man. A tree and a building is in the background and Japanese text is written around them.

Horse Dance in Izu Highway One, 1764 by Torii Kiyomitsu (1735–1785)

A mannequin in a glass display cabinet dressed in a kimono with a hexagon motif.

Kimono and haori coat for a kabuki actor, Japan, about 1870–1900.

Japanese print with many people dressed in traditional clothes with a theatre scene, audience and street scene

The Ichimura theatre, Meiwa period (1764–72)

Related objects

An open book shows line drawings of Japanese family crests, six on each page, and Japanese text.

An ABC of Japanese family crests, 1881

Samurai, courtesans, actors and other townspeople had circular or square family crests (mon) included in the designs of their kimono gowns and other belongings. This helped to distinguish one family or business from another. This book shows over 1000 different crests with designs based on natural motifs, animals and distinctive objects. 00284TEA

A display of a group of seven prints showing the sequence of block printing of a japanese print. The finished image in the foreground shows a hunched man dressed in traditional costume.

The actor Ichikawa Komazo, reproduction set, about 1985-2017

Tōshūsai Sharaku (active 1794–95)
Printed by the Nagao workshop, Tokyo

Here you can see some of the 17 stages required to make one of Sharaku’s designs. Some of the colours, such as the black, are overprinted at the end of the process to create a richer result. Purchased with the support of the Friends of Bristol Art Gallery, 2017. Or2017.14

A japanese woodblock with an image of a woman, seated, dressed in traditional clothes.

Woodblock, about 1805-1840

Possibly Kikukawa Eizan (1787-1867)
Wood, possibly cherry

The artist depicts a beautiful woman with a loosely tied gown and elaborate hairpins. The title of the print, ‘Fan of Fashionable Three Beauties’, is a fan shape at the top. The current owner has rubbed the design with chalk to reveal the design.

On the lower right corner you can see an L-shaped mark and further along on the lower edge, a straight mark. These are registration marks (kento): as each print used different blocks to print different colours, these marks allowed the printer to line up the paper on the blocks so the colours were in exactly the right place.

Lent by Dr Malcolm Campbell

 

An open book shows line drawings of Japanese family crests, six on each page, and Japanese text.

An ABC of Japanese family crests, 1881

A display of a group of seven prints showing the sequence of block printing of a japanese print. The finished image in the foreground shows a hunched man dressed in traditional costume.

The actor Ichikawa Komazo, reproduction set, about 1985-2017

A japanese woodblock with an image of a woman, seated, dressed in traditional clothes.

Woodblock, about 1805-1840

Shop Masters of Japanese Prints

Japanese print of a woman dressed in traditional clothes holding a paper bag with japanese text

Cake Shop Waitress Print

356 x 280 mm mounted print. Cake shop waitress with a bag marked ‘Famous rice-cakes’ by Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806).

Cover of book with a colourful and dramatic picture of man dressed in traditional costume.

Japanese Prints: Ukiyo-e in Edo, 1700-1900

Stunning new photography of both well-known and rarely published works in the collection of the British Museum.

Japanese print with four women, dressed in traditional clothes, visiting a temple.

In Sensō-ji Temple Hardback Journal

Hardback journal with lined pages. From the series Eight Views of Kinryusan, Asakusa by Torii Kiyonaga (1752-1812).

Thank you to everyone who donated to the Japanese Prints conservation appeal, without whom display of this work would not have been possible.

With particular thanks to Simon Baker, John and Susan Hart, Shelagh Cutner, Roger Feneley, The Davidson Charitable Trust, Sir James and Lady Virginia Tidmarsh, Katherine Croft, Dr and Mrs Hibberd, as well as the many Friends of Bristol Art Gallery members and Bristol Museums Development Trust donors who supported the appeal and exhibition.

Logo of Bristol Museums Development Trust