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EDO POP: Japanese prints at Lady Lever Art Gallery

EDO POP: Japanese prints at Lady Lever Art Gallery

More than 40 prints bring to life the energy and spirit of 19th-century Edo (now Tokyo) to the Lady Lever Art Gallery from 26 May to 24 September 2017.

The title of the exhibition, Edo Pop: Japanese prints, refers to the popular culture of Japan at the time. The exhibition delivers, with an extraordinary level of detail and compelling narratives, an intriguing world of urban celebrities, actors, sports champions, fashion icons and villains.

Edo Pop features a Hokusai print from the same series as his famous image, the Great Wave. Accompanied by prints by other leading artists the exhibition will prove to visitors that there was much more to this richly creative city.

On loan from the private collection of art historian and writer, Frank Milner, the show features work by leading Japanese printmakers such as Eisen, Kuniyoshi, Kunisada, Yoshitoshi, Sadahide and Kunichika; the last great master of the Kabuki actor print. It also reveals how trail-blazing and industrious the printing industry in Japan was in the 19th century. The technically accomplished Ukiyo-e prints, often produced from 12 or more woodblocks, were issued in runs of up to 7000 of each image.

Frank Milner said: “To me, what appeals about these prints is that so many are portraits of contemporary heroes that were originally bought by ordinary fans for the price of a bowl of noodles. People often think of Pop and its ephemera as a 1960s thing but over 150 years ago, in a wooden city of a million people on the other side of the world, there was a buzzing, exciting Pop culture and these beautifully-crafted prints show that.

“To be able to display some of the highlights of my collection at the Lady Lever Art Gallery is, for me, a privilege. Instead of crammed eight deep into my hallway they will now be given enough space to be able to really appreciate their unique qualities.”

The colourful prints depict a lively city on the brink of huge cultural changes. Split across several themes the exhibition reveals social customs, pastimes and lifestyle in a time when government censorship was strict.

The main areas include:

  • Women of the Yoshiwara – An 18 acre walled, guarded and gated zone on the edge of Edo, Yoshiwara was home to 3,000 prostitutes who lived and worked alongside geishas, teahouse and brothel servants and entertainers. The small minority of those who reached the elevated oiran status were glamorous figures and fashion icons. Also the subject of urban gossip and curiosity, the prints of the beautifully-dressed women were best sellers and commonly pasted on walls of teahouses and hung in Japanese homes.
  • Actors – About 80% of all Japanese woodblock prints were of Kabuki actors or scenes from plays. Established in the late 17th century and hugely popular, by the 19th century, Kabuki theatre had turned its eye to contemporary Edo life. It was often vulgar, topical and edgy. For a period in the 1840s all actor prints were banned, Kabuki was censored by the government and any perceived immoral or politically critical content was stamped on. The prints in the exhibition reveal the popularity of this illicit world.
  • Modernisation – The prints reflect a period of significant change for Japan, which until the 1850s had been a feudal society. A trade deal with the USA in 1854 and the end of the Shogunate rule in 1868 was the start of this period of ‘modernisation’, with Edo as its main city, at the heart of the changes. The effect on Edo was dramatic. Japan’s first railway opened there in 1872 and Western hairstyles and clothing were adopted by fashionable residents, who renamed their city Tokyo. Printmakers responded rapidly to this by making modern novelties the subject of their prints and found a huge demand for their art from local residents and increasing visitors from countryside.
  • Sumo wrestling and Samurai warriors – Sumo wrestlers in 19th century Edo were celebrities just like the Kabuki actors. Popular prints were made of individual star wrestlers, infamous bouts (both real and imaginary) and promoted their sponsors. Samurai were also a common subject for Edo printmakers, often depicted as legendary figures of Japanese history or in the form of the Kabuki actors who played them.

Sandra Penketh, Director of Art Galleries at National Museums Liverpool, said: “Edo Pop: Japanese prints is a wonderful opportunity for our visitors to get an insight into a fascinating city, rich in culture and character. These evocative images will take visitors back in time to a world of beautiful geishas, brave samurai warriors and fabulous story-telling.

“We are very excited to be showing the prints at the Lady Lever Art Gallery and continue to build on our reputation for top-quality exhibitions. We’re sure our visitors will be won over by the striking imagery and skilful execution, enjoying them as exquisite windows into another world, seemingly very different to our own but on closer inspection dealing with many familiar human subjects.”

edo pop: Impatient fireman's wife 1888 by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, Collection: Frank Milner
Impatient fireman’s wife 1888 by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, Collection: Frank Milner

Free entry
Open daily 10am-5pm
Lady Lever Art Gallery

Port Sunlight Village, Wirral, CH62 5EQ
Telephone 0151 478 4136