When Japan opened up to the Western world in the 19th century, popular artistic tastes were dominated by two great woodblock print artists, Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) and Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1864). Contemporaries, keen rivals and both members of the Utagawa School, the pair had the inventiveness and flexibility to keep abreast of changing tastes as well as the whims of the censors.

The exhibition “Kuniyoshi and Kunisada” at The Bunkamura Museum of Art (it will later travel to Kobe and Nagoya) is the first to explicitly compare the two artists, who both feature prominently in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston from which the show is sourced.

The Bostonian connection mainly derives from Dr. William Bigelow, a wealthy physician who spent seven years in Japan in the 1880s. He seems to have spent most of his time collecting, as he returned to Boston with more than 9,000 works by Kunisada and over 3,000 by Kuniyoshi.

Bigelow had first encountered ukiyo-e prints during the 1870s when he was in France, where there was a lot of enthusiasm for them among artists and intellectuals. This gave him the confidence to ignore criticisms in Japan that the prints were not “serious art,” and he started to amass a collection.

With around 170 works, the exhibition is organized in several sections numbered like the divisions of a play: “Act I, Scene I,” onward. This is testament to the close connection between woodblock prints and the theater world, with many of the themes, characters and scenes depicted having been the subject matter of kabuki plays. The works included in the first section of the exhibition emphasize this connection.

One of the most popular kabuki tales was “The Water Margin,” a Chinese classic that was translated into Japanese in the 18th-century. Kuniyoshi’s depictions of the various heroes from the tale are packed with visual fireworks. An excellent example is “Kashiwade no Hanoshi” from the series “Eight Hundred Heroes of the Japanese Shuihuzhuan” (c. 1830). In this print, the hero, dressed in a richly patterned kimono, is superimposed on a ferocious tiger, bristling with energy. They are, of course, engaged in a deadly battle.

In each of Kuniyoshi’s depictions, it is clear that the artist is pulling out all the stops. Hardly an inch of paper is allowed to lie dormant or empty. The vibe is raucous and populist rather than refined and delicate. We get a sense, both from the style and the subject matter — a tale of heroic banditry — that this is raw and vital proletarian art.

Kunisada, by contrast, is represented in this section by more-refined portraits of kabuki actors themed with motifs of pine or bamboo. Still, the expressions and vivid clothing are highly charged. The portraits date from 1859, after an earlier ban on depicting actors had lapsed. In the 1840s, Mizuno Tadakuni, a statesman who oversaw much of government policy, became concerned about public morals. Wishing to move society in a more austere and frugal direction, he introduced the 1842 Tenpo Reforms, which imposed restrictions on the connected realms of prostitution, theater and art. How this impacted on ukiyo-e can be deduced from this decree:

“To make woodblock prints of kabuki actors, courtesans and geisha is detrimental to public morals. Henceforth the publication of new works as well as the sale of previously procured stocks is strictly forbidden. In future you are to select designs that are based on loyalty and filial piety and which serve to educate women and children, and you must insure that they are not luxurious.”

Although short-lived, this period of censorship seems to have served as a spur on creativity, forcing innovative types such as Kuniyoshi and Kunisada away from tried and tested formulas and toward greater innovation. The exhibition makes little attempt to highlight this, but it is interesting to check the dates of the works to see the effect.

Most observable is the impact on depictions of women. Kunisada, renowned for his depictions of luxurious geisha — see the excellent section “Glamour and Style” — switches instead to “A Floral Calendar: Women on Lucky Days” (1843-47), with relatively twee subjects.

More amusing, however, is Kuniyoshi’s response. As geisha were associated with their gaudy finery, he signals that his ladies definitely aren’t denizens of Yoshiwara (the pleasure district), even if the intimacy of the images is the same as before, by dressing them in fabrics of a simple Benkei-check — a broad tartan-like pattern — associated with the proverbial military hero Benkei. This ironically fits in with the decree if not the spirit of the reforms.

Once the Tenpo Reforms lapsed, the artists were able to return to their favorite subjects of courtesans and actors, with a few ghost and hero tales thrown in, but there is a sense that their artistic amplitude had been suitably widened by the experience.

If only the venue could likewise be widened, as it can get a little cramped for the number of visitors to such a popular show.

“Kuniyoshi and Kunisada: From the Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston” at The Bunkamura Museum of Art runs until June 5; 10 a.m.-7 p.m. (Fri. and Sat. until 9 p.m.). ¥1,500. It then moves to the Kobe City Museum from June 18 to Aug. 28 www.ytv.co.jp/kunikuni

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