Actors of kabuki, Japan’s distinctive form of popular theater, were superstars between the 17th and early 20th centuries, and continue to command cultural and celebrity status today. Their fame was fueled by mass-produced woodblock-printed actor portraits, or yakusha-e, that were sold as affordable mementos of the theater experience, and by bespoke paintings for wealthy patrons.
As Japan modernized from the late 19th century, theaters adapted their repertoire to cater to shifting tastes and social mores. New stories and foreign ideas reinvigorated kabuki and attracted diverse audiences and patronage. In response to these developments and the rise of photography, publishers, print designers and painters updated their stylistic and technical approaches to yakusha-e, thereby propelling the genre into the modern era.
Kabuki Modern presents superb recent acquisitions of kabuki portraits between 1868 and the 1950s. Visitors will see works by Toyohara Kunichika (1835–1900), Yamamura Kōka (Toyonari, 1885–1942), and Natori Shunsen (1886–1960) — the foremost print artists of their time. Two stunning screen paintings by Murakami Michiho (1899–1938) and Torii Kiyotada IV (1875–1941) that recently returned to the Museum following conservation treatment are also on view. Featuring portraits of actors in character, these prints and paintings capture the dynamic poses, elaborate stage make-up, and sumptuous costumes that have enthralled audiences for over 400 years.