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Foreign Faces in Japanese Prints

January 20, 2007–April 8, 2007
Gallery 107

Like people around the world, the Japanese of the Edo period (1615–1868) found foreigners fascinating, and woodblock print (ukiyo-e) artists and publishers were only too happy to accommodate the public’s appetite. Foreign Faces in Japanese Prints presents a range of works by some of the most prominent ukiyo-e artists of the 17th through 19th century, including Hishikawa Moronobu, Okumura Masanobu, Suzuki Harunobu, Kitagawa Utamaro, and Katsushika Hokusai. Printed books and lacquerware with foreign imagery are also on display.

Ukiyo-e artists found foreign faces irresistible as subject matter. They could be both comic and dangerous, exotic and erotic, while also serving as mirrors of identity. In the Edo period, artists produced scenes of Chinese, Dutch, Korean, and Portuguese visitors in the port of Nagasaki, on the streets of Kyoto and Edo, and on the highways in between. Another popular subject was the Korean parade, which featured hundreds of exotic foreigners and attracted even greater numbers of curious onlookers. Hong Ujae, a member of the 1682 Korean ambassador’s mission to Japan, wrote, “A million onlookers swarmed like so many ants . . .to watch us.” Though there are earlier paintings of the subject, Hishikawa Moronobu (1618–1694) created the earliest known print depiction of the spectacle, which is on view in the exhibition. 

It wasn’t just “real” foreigners that fascinated artists and the public alike. The Japanese often adopted characters of Chinese legend as cult figures, creating a demand that kept artists busily employed. Among the most popular characters was Shoki the Demon Queller, whose ghost came to Tang-dynasty emperor Xuanzong (reigned 712–756) in a dream and saved the ruler by vanquishing a demon that was making him ill. In the 17th century, the Japanese began using amulets depicting Shoki at the annual Boys’ Festival to ward off disease and instill a manly competitiveness in the participants. Okumura Masanobu’s (1686–1764) print of a fierce, muscular Shoki honing his sword on a rough boulder was likely produced for sale during the festival. The figure’s wild, untamed beard, hairy arms, and tiger-skin leggings underscore both his ferocity and his foreignness.

View more works from this exhibition.

Okumura Masanobu. Shoki Sharpening His Sword, Date unknown. Clarence Buckingham Collection.