Bowdoin College Museum of Art
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Toyohara Chikanobu, Japanese. From a 'Moon, Flowers and Snow' Series: Kiyomori in a Snowy Garden of Skulls, 1884 color woodblock. Private Collection. (detail).
Fantastic Stories: The Supernatural in Nineteenth-century Japanese Prints
November 9, 2012 - March 3, 2013
Center Gallery
Focus Gallery
Organized on the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Asian Studies Program at Bowdoin College, this exhibition explores themes of the supernatural and otherworldly encounters in Japanese woodblock prints of the nineteenth century. The show includes forty prints and books, all drawn from the private collection of Cornell University faculty member Dan McKee. In these narratives, protective deities touch the lives of commoners and vengeful spirits haunt those who had betrayed them. The human body is transformed, endowed with the powers of animal deities. McKee writes, "Japan, with its lack of stark division between the divine and the mundane, has particularly rich traditions of otherworldly and worldly interaction. These prints represent many pleasurable and chilling representations of what may lie out there,' unseen around us, or beyond the grave."

Supernatural themes have been featured in folk tales and legends from Japanese literary and religious traditions for over a millennium. Prominent nineteenth-century artists featured in this exhibition, such as Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Kawanabe Kyōsai, Utagawa Kunisada, and Katsushika Hokusai, mined these rich traditions, while developing innovative printmaking techniques that enabled their art to be enjoyed by abroader, and increasingly secularized, public. In particular ghost stories were frequently featured in the elaborate dramatic effects of kabuki theater. Fantastic Stories will also include clips from classic Japanese ghost films of the 1960s to demonstrate how such frightening narratives have evolved during the twentieth century.

The nineteenth century in Japan was a time of deep uncertainty, brought on by frenetic changes in politics, economics, and international relations that undermined senses of security and identity. Already weakened by a series of natural disasters that caused widespread famine and riots from the 1830s, the once-fearsome Tokugawa military government revealed its inability to control Japan's destiny, leading to a chaotic period of assassinations and rebellion before the establishment of the Emperor Meiji as the new, stable figurehead for the nation. 

Urban commoners, whose culture of colorful drama, fiction, and visual arts is examined in this exhibition, responded to the uncertainty of the times largely through escapism–especially though kabuki plays and imaginative woodblock prints. The prints often held subtle or disguised references to current events. While portraying imaginary realms and figures, the artwork in this exhibition thus represents a very real engagement with the world of its time.

This exhibition was organized in conjunction with Bowdoin College Assistant Professor Vyjayanthi Selinger’s Fall 2012 course "The Fantastic and Demonic in Japanese Literature." The exhibition is generously supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Endowment Fund. 

Related Events

Thursday, February 7, 2013 | 7:00 p.m. | Bowdoin College Museum of Art
Museum Member's Program: Exploring "Fantastic Stories" with Bowdoin College Students

Students from Bowdoin College Assistant Professor Vyjayanthi Selinger's course "The Fantastic and the Demonic in Japanese LIterature" speak on selected works in the exhibition. 

Thursday, February 28, 2013 | 7:00 p.m. |Kresge Auditorium, Bowdoin College
Kabuki Theater Performance by Sachiyo Ito

A performance/demonstration of kabuki and traditional Japanese dance by Sachiyo Ito, based in New York City.  Sachiyo Ito has brought together East and West through her delicate and powerful performances of classical, traditional, and contemporary Japanese dance for nearly forty years.  Open to the public free of charge and supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Fund.
Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Japanese, 1798–1861. Tamahime Attempts to Escape from the Sea Dragon and its Minions, 1853, color woodblock. Private Collection.
Utagawa Kunisada, Japanese, 1786–1865. Manifestation of the Tengu, 1852, color woodblock. Private Collection.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Japanese, 1798–1861. The Dream of O-Iwa, A Normal Woman in a Disfigured World, ca. 1830s, color woodblock. Private Collection.
Utagawa Kunisada, Japanese, 1786 –1865. The Cat Witch, 1861, color woodblock. Private Collection.

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, Japanese, 1839–1892. Kiyomori’s Fever Dream, 1883, color woodblock. Private Collection.
Toyohara Chikanobu, Japanese. From a 'Moon, Flowers and Snow' Series: Kiyomori in a Snowy Garden of Skulls, 1884 color woodblock. Private Collection.