Masters of Japanese Prints - Life In The City - Bristol Museum

Kate Newnham has curated another stunning set of Japanese woodblock prints for the latest exhibiton ‘Masters of Japanese Prints: Life In The City’ at Bristol Museum.

I arrive early to the museum on the day of opening and already there’s steady stream of people who have been transported into 18th Century Japan - a corridor abundant with tatami mats and sliding doors, scroll paintings and ikebana, 3 stringed lutes and tea ceremonies, calligraphy and poetry, parasols and lanterns, music and dancing. A rich world of theatre, fashion and festivals, temples and shrines.


I study a print by Kitagawa Utamaro ‘Fishing Boats with Nets under Ryogoku Bridge 1790.’ A young man next to me also absorbed in the detail turns to me with a look of amazement and starts the conversation. We look at a print together, in awe of the craftspeople who have been involved in the making of this scene. How is it possible to carve and print such fine and intricate works of art? The complex textile patterns on the kimonos, the fine string on the fishing nets, the delicate outlines of the waves, the distant crowd of people on the bridge under parasols, so tiny yet such clarity and attention to detail. We stand in wonderment for a few minutes and then slowly go our separate ways to explore further curiosities of this Floating World.

Eating and Drinking 

Being a lover of green tea and music, I am drawn to the festive Eating and Drinking prints of Katsukawa Shunshō, Kubo Shunman. I zoom in on a woman playing a Shamisen on a tea house balcony. She is surrounded by little bowls and cups filled with sake and a lacquer box which may contain sushi or green tea powder. This is just a small detail of the print. A couple of women to the right are holding a book but seem to be more interested in what is going on at the other side of the balcony. 


Women of the ‘pleasure districts’ 

On the oppostie side of the corridor are prints of Geisha and courtesans. Again the photos here are closeup snapshots from a bigger story. These prints remind me of a poem by Amy Lowell. 

Yoshiwara Lament

Golden peacocks

Under blossoming cherry-trees,

But on all the wide sea

There is no boat.

Kabuki Theatre 

Stretching along the rest of the corridor are prints depicting actors from Kabuki theatre. I take a few closeup shots of actors by Katsukawa Shunsho. Woodblock prints of actors, pop icons from the Edo period, were popular souvenirs from the Kabuki theatres. It takes me back to my teens with posters of celebrities blue-tacked to my wall. I would come home after a concert wearing a new t.shirt printed with the band’s logo or portrait of my favourite pop star!

The detail of the crowd in the lower right corner shows an audience at the theatre. This is a small section from a large scale woodblock print in the exhibition. It’s made up of four prints. At the top, we are given a glimpse backstage with the actors ready to go on stage, then the main stage with the actors playing their parts, the next part shows the audience and staff selling refreshments and below that are people hanging out on the street outside the theatre.

When I was 16 my first work experience was helping the sound engineer at a local theatre. I could sit up in the sound booth or at the back of the theatre while the actors rehearsed their parts. I was introduced to all the different elements that make this make believe world come alive. I explored the whole place from backstage, on stage, trying out different seats in the auditorium, to running back and forth between the theatre and the cafe delivering messages or drinks. I was fascinated with how it all worked and this print is a brilliant insight to the different aspects of a theatre and the people who make this remarkable enchanting world.     

“This set of four prints shows the interior and exterior of the Imchimura theatre, one of the main theatres licensed by the government in Edo (Tokyo).” Bristol Museum (On loan from Kimono Kimono). 

There are so many beautiful prints to explore here that one viewing is not enough. I’ll be back again to stop a little longer. To look a little closer. To step back into this hypnotic magical floating world of 18th Century Japan.

Kate Newnham will be giving a lunchtime talk about the exhibition at Bristol Museum Thursday 7th February from 1.15pm - 2pm.