The Golden Age of Colour Prints

Ukiyo-e from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The striking images of Japanese Manga comics and Anime films permeate contemporary society, and yet their history is relatively unfamiliar. Shepparton Art Museum’s rare and exclusive exhibition The Golden Age of Colour Prints brings the origins of Japanese popular culture to life, with an exquisite collection of multi-colour Ukiyo-e prints from the Tanmei and Kansei eras (1781-1801) of metropolitan Tokyo. Ukiyo-e (“pictures of the floating world”) is a genre of Japanese woodblock prints and paintings that has exerted considerable influence over the development of Western art, including French Impressionism, Art Nouveau and Pop Art. Featuring works by three of the most important artists in Japanese history, Torii Kiyonaga, Kitagawa Utamaro and Tōshashūsai  Sharaku, along with a selection of work by their contemporaries, it offers an exciting opportunity to appreciate the mastery and visual sophistication of the polychrome printing technique that reached its zenith in the second half of the 17th century.

Newly unified after a history of warring feuding domains and hardship, Tokyo (“Edo”) had become a peaceful nation at the turn of the century, and a booming capital for commercial, mercantile and entrepreneurial activity. The strong economy gave rise to a culture of pleasure and prosperity that spread throughout the middle classes, accompanied by an interest in textiles, fashion and entertainment among the pleasure-seeking public. People had money to spend on clothes, sport and kabuki, and out of this evolved a demand for colourful printed images of popular figures including geisha, kabuki actors and courtesans – what is today’s culture magazines, posters and Hollywood stars. The public were familiar with black and white woodblock prints, but as the superficial world of beauty and entertainment took hold, so too did the demand for highly colourful images. Hand printed with up to 5000 copies, each pigment was applied with an individually carved wooden block, and required a degree of craftsmanship the likes of which you wouldn’t see today.

These prints are representative of a brief period when Japan was virtually closed to the Western world, and provide a fascinating insight into consumer culture prior to international trade, mechanical printing and photography which brought a decline in   Ukiyo-e, and a shift toward the production of story books and Manga. SAM director, Kirsten Paisley says “While The Golden Age will appeal strongly to national audiences already interested in Asian art, the beauty and accessibility of the imagery, along with the current broad interest in contemporary culture will ensure significant interest among the general public as well.”

The exhibition will be complemented by an extensive public program including a keynote address by Wayne Crothers, Curator of Asian Art at NGV, artist talks, workshops, tours and a number of free events demonstrating all things Japanese from origami and puppets, to tea ceremonies.



The Golden Age of Colour Prints: Ukiyo-e from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston shows at Shepparton Art Museum from March 7 to June 2.



Tōshūsai Sharaku, active 1794-1795
Signature: Tōshūsai Sharaku ga
Publisher: Tsutaya Jūzaburō (Kōshodō)
William Sturgis Bigelow Collection, 11.14672


Torii Kiyonaga, 1752-1815
Actor Segawa Kikunojō III Performing the Lion Dance (Shakkyō)
Signature: Kiyonaga ga
Publisher: Nishimuraya Yohachi (Eijudō)
William Sturgis Bigelow Collection, 11.13916


Kitagawa Utamaro, ?-1806
A Spring Outing Vertical ōban, nishiki-e
Signature: Utamaro ga
Publisher: Tsutaya Jūzaburō (Kōshodō)
William Sturgis Bigelow Collection, 11.14402


Utagawa Toyokuni, 1769-1825
Ladies Practicing Martial Arts (Opening Scene of the Play Mirror Mountain)
Vertical ōban triptych, nishiki-e
Signature: Toyokuni ga (on each sheet)
Publisher: Wakasaya Yoichi (Jakurindō)
William Sturgis Bigelow Collection,
11.13608 (right), 11.13756 (left), 11.13757 (center)


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