This exhibition has now closed.
Woodblock prints were a cheap and colourful medium of entertainment, much like magazines and posters today. Their visual style will be familiar to fans of Manga comics, Japanese cinema and even Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films. Publishing houses commissioned designs from the very greatest artists of the era, but the prints were affordable to the average person on the street.
Colour woodblock print, depicting the kabuki actor Segawa Roko III as the ghost of the courtesan Sumizome-sakura, in the play 'The Snowbound Barrier (Tsumoru koi yuki no seki no to)', from the print series 'Parallels for the 36 Immortal Poets (Mitate sanjurokkasen no uchi)'; by Utagawa Kunisada, 1852.
Colour woodblock print, depicting the Kabuki actor Otani Tomoemon V as Sazanami the courtesan, in the play 'Drawing a Crowd for the Chorus at the Two Theatres (Koe mo sorou ryōza no ōyose)', from the print series 'Actors for the Twenty-Four Paragons of Filial Piety (Yakusha nijushi ko)'; by Toyohara Kunichika, 1868.
Colour woodblock print, depicting the kabuki actor Seki Sanjuro II as Tenjin striking a defiant attitude during a dance piece, in the play 'The Fragrance of the Courtesan’s Spirit (Keisei hangonko)', from the print series 'Farewell Dance of Ōtsu-e Pictures (O-nagori Ōtsu-e shosagoto no uchi)'; Japan, by Utagawa Kunisada, 1826.
Colour woodblock print, depicting the Kabuki actor Ichimura Kakitsu IV as Misao no Takeshichi, a character relating to the fishing industry; by Utagawa Kunisada, 1863.
Colour woodblock print, depicting the kabuki actor Kawarasaki Gonjuro I as Watonai, in the play 'The Battles of Coxinga (Kokusenya kassen)', from the print series 'Thirty-six Selected Floral Parallels (Tosei mitate sanjurokkasen)'; by Utagawa Kunisada, 1861.
In the 19th century, both men and women clamoured to acquire pictures of their favourite actor in the latest play. Such prints often sold in the thousands, creating an almost endless demand for new compositions from artists. The obsession with Kabuki actors led artists to take backstage scenes or life offstage as subject matter and so, in a loose parallel with modern candid publicity pictures in celebrity magazines, some prints portray actors out for a walk, dressed as ordinary people, or attending festivals. There are also representations of their cultural activities, participating in salons for poetry composition and calligraphy.
In all, National Museums Scotland holds approximately 4,000 Japanese woodblock prints. These were acquired in the 1880s, at the peak of the craze for Japanese art and design in Europe (known as Japonisme). The collection is concentrated on the nineteenth century, the period of greatest expansion of the medium. The exhibition represents the finest examples in the collection and includes many precious and rarely seen examples.
The time span of the exhibition (1830s–1870s) also encompasses a period of significant unrest culminating in the collapse of the feudal system in 1868, followed by a period of modernisation and social reform. The later prints reflect these changes, in the style and themes and also in the introduction of new technology and dyes which expanded the possibilities for artists and publishers.