Kabuki, Japan’s popular theatre, has entertained audiences since the early 1600s. Leading kabuki actors became celebrities with massive fan clubs, and there was a huge demand for images of famous actors in their colourful costumes and dramatic make-up. These brightly-coloured woodblock prints of actors were known as ‘yakusha-e’. They often show actors striking an intense pose known as a ‘mie’.

This exhibition displayed yakusha-e by 19th century print designers Utagawa Kunisada (1786 - 1864) and Toyohara Kunichika (1835 - 1900), alongside a group of woodblock prints by contemporary Japanese printmaker Tsuruya Kōkei (b. 1946)

Like earlier print designers, Kōkei depicts moments from actual kabuki performances, and his portraits of modern-day kabuki actors, with their exaggerated facial features and hands, strongly evoke earlier yakusha-e. However, unlike the Japanese ukiyo-e artists of previous centuries, who merely provided publishers with drawings for block cutters and printers to work on, Kōkei draws, carves, and prints his own designs.

View the online exhibition here