Capturing the Actor's Spirit: Kabuki Actor Prints by Katsukawa Sunshö

  • Exhib_slideshow_sunsho

    The c. 1773 color woodblock print Danjürö V as Kagekiyo in the play "Hatsu Akebono Niwatori Soga" (HAA 12993) by Katsukawa Shunshö (1726-1792) is a fine example of how nishiki-e prints captured the essence of popular Kabuki actors.

January 15, 2009 - March 29, 2009
Galleries 20 + 21


Exhibition Overview

Katsukawa Shunshö (1726-1792), who is well-known as the teacher of famed woodblock-print artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), was a pioneer in the production of multicolor woodblock prints (nishiki-e), particularly of Kabuki actors.


On view in January will be approximately 30 rare prints that introduce viewers to some of the most famous Kabuki plays and serve as a brief history of Kabuki actor prints.

Before Shunshö’s time, Kabuki-actor prints were produced primarily by Torii-school artists. However, by the 1760s, the Torii-school style had become extremely formal and stylized. Nishiki-e prints, on the other hand, were innovative in their use of brilliant colors and dynamic compositions. Shunshö began using nishiki-e technology to portray the actors’ unique characteristics, such as their individual expressions and poses. The more realistic portrayals of Shunshö’s prints meant people could now identify the actors without the aid of inscriptions. Edo urbanites and Kabuki fans welcomed the prints featuring their idols.

Shunshö was also a renowned master of “paintings of beautiful women” (bijinga). In fact, Shunshö first trained in the lineage of the renowned Miyagawa Chöshun (1682-1752), who was best known for his dynamic bijinga. However, Shunshö renounced this heritage and changed his lineage name from Miyagawa to Katsukawa when Chöshun was disgraced, and eventually exiled, in 1749. At the same time, the delicate lines and elegant sensibility derived from his training in bijinga remain visible in his Kabuki-actor prints. The excellence of the captured poses and balanced compositions in Shunshö’s actor prints are unparalleled in the history of the Kabuki print genre.