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Kunichika kabuki prints at Lady Lever Art Gallery

Vibrant artworks by 19th Century Japanese printmaker Toyohara Kunichika are going on show at the Lady Lever Art Gallery.

Kunichika: Japanese Prints features dozens of fascinating depictions of the stars of traditional kabuki theatre, captured both in some of their most famous and popular roles but also behind the scenes.

The exhibition of works, which come from the private collection of art historian Frank Milner, is the first outside Japan to concentrate on Kunichika and follows the Port Sunlight gallery’s popular Edo Pop show which it staged in 2017.

Kunichika was born in Edo (modern day Tokyo) in 1835 and trained under the great Japanese printmaker Utagawa Kunisada. Fans of his work included Vincent Van Gogh who owned two Kunichika prints among other Japanese work.

The prints – reflecting a time of change within traditional Japanese society as well as celebrating some of the most well-known actors of the day - would be affordable to many, and were sold in shops close to theatres.

Sixty-eight hand-printed single, double and triptych prints are on show at the Lady Lever including on-stage dramatic moments, behind-the-scenes dressing room views and close up portraits of the actors. There are also 10 prints selected from his various series of ‘female beauties’.

Above: Collector and curator Frank Milner. Photo by Gareth Jones. Top: Ichikawa Udanji as Koya Sahei as a lion dancer, 1882

Milner, who has guest curated the exhibition, says: “Kunichika was a fascinating and complex artist working and responding to the enormous technological and social changes that took place in Japan during his working life.

“He worked closely with leading kabuki actors who, like him, had to adapt to the creative and destructive opportunities and challenges in the new Japan.”

The curator and collector first became interested in Japanese prints while still at school and bought his first print in a junk shop in Penny Lane in around 1972 when, he recalls, it “cost about £1.”

Dave Moffat, Assistant Curator (Decorative Art) at National Museums Liverpool, said: “The introductory section of the exhibition includes a small group of prints by both Kunichika and his mentor, showing their master/pupil inter-relationship and indicating how Kunichika came to inherit Kunisada's mantle as the leading actor print maker of his time.

“The Kunichika prints in the exhibition include several of his individual and group actor portraits but also a number of lesser-known kabuki scenes from what were modern contemporary kabuki plays that highlighted up-to the-minute issues like Western clothing, hairstyles, fashions and manners.

“They also explore the troubling social anxieties and conflict between the old versus the new in a rapidly modernising capital city.”

Kunichika: Japanese Prints is at the Lady Lever Art Gallery from April 15 to September 4.

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