Tucked away in the back hallways of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, “Showdown! Kuniyoshi vs. Kunisada,” contains an engaging and informative experience, comparing two brilliant woodblock print artists of the 1800s, Utagawa Kuniyoshi and Utagawa Kunisada.
The grandeur of these two artists is well-captured. As you walk in the door, the exhibit gives you a small bit of background on the two artists, then thrusts you into picking sides. The gallery is split up into large sections comparing both artists’ work during the influential times in their lives. The Kunisada prints are framed in brown wood, while Kuniyoshi prints are framed in black so gallery visitors can quickly tell the difference between the two.
These two artists were in their prime when a lot of their work was created. Trained under the same teacher, their rivalry fueled their work. They created a multitude of prints that reflected the popularity of the performance art, known as Kabuki, which often depicted supernatural folklore in the form of acting.
Kuniyoshi’s work, even now, acts as an influence to many different motifs found in modern anime productions and stories. His works capture a snapshot of a period of Japanese culture obsessed with ghosts, folklore and dazzling on-stage performance.
Kunisada, who focused on making prints of popular Kabuki actors, put a lot of emphasis on facial expression. This print of “Actor Iwai Hanshiro V as Yaoya Oshichi,” in particular, really focuses on the facial expression of a male actor performing as a woman.
Kunisada was known for his focus on expressive faces throughout his work. In this Surimono, a commissioned print or illustration, of a Kabuki performance, he maintains this distinct focus while adding in a slight flair in the form of reflective specks for the buyer of the print.
Kunisada prioritizes the faces of performers, which makes for an extremely vivid representation of exaggerated Kabuki theater performances. This print of “Actor Onoe Tamizo II; Ichikawa Ichizo III as Tenjiku Tokubei, Actually Yoshinaka’s Son Dainichimaru; Arashi Kangoro I as Torite Kango, and Nakamura Kantaro I as Torite Kanta” in a performance about a wicked magician and a giant frog is comical yet strangely conceivable.
In contrast, Kuniyoshi is a lot more focused on the grand visuals of a scene. Because he made prints of folklore and stories based on the supernatural, which was a topic of rising popularity at the time, his prints are extremely detailed with a feeling of expansiveness.
In the series of prints of gods from a popular Chinese legend, Kuniyoshi creates a sense of playful bombast, with images not too far off from what one would find in a contemporary Saturday morning cartoon.
Kuniyoshi’s most attractive piece in the exhibit is found in the Monsters and Ghosts section. A triptych, which is a full picture made of three separate prints, of the legend of a giant fish monster is simply breathtaking. The images together invoke a sense of awe and fear.
Possibly one of Kuniyoshi’s more famous prints is that of two ghost-like Kabuki actors. Kuniyoshi’s grand and dramatic style create the illusion that the actors float off the page. The eeriness of their facial expressions, right down to the abnormalities in their eye sockets creates a scene that one would struggle to look at without sending chills down their spine.
The extent of these two artists’ work goes far beyond just a few prints. The kind of storytelling they popularized through their work is incalculable. Although which artists had the greatest effect is up to personal judgment, this exhibit allows people who are interested in that question to answer it for themselves.