A Century of Giving

Kitagawa Utamaro

The Chushingura drama parodied by Famous Beauties: Act 2

album of woodcuts, c.1795

The Fitzwilliam Museum: P.349-1945

Kabuki theatre developed in Japan alongside the concept of ukiyo-e or 'pictures of the floating world'. These mass-produced, woodblock prints celebrated the hedonistic world of the here and now: an escape from a rigid, hierarchical society bound by strict conventions.

The subjects of many of these prints revolved around the Yoshiwara, the licensed pleasure quarters on the outskirts of Edo (present day Tokyo) whose teahouses and brothels were frequented by high ranking courtesans. Together with the male stars of kabuki theatre, these glamorous women were the true celebrities of the 'floating world'.

These are from an album of 12 prints by Kitagawa Utamaro which relate to the most famous of the kabuki revenge plays. Here, scenes from the ancient Japanese drama - Kanadehon Chushingura - have been recast as events in the lives of contemporary celebrities. The dramatic conspiracies and skirmishes of samurai warriors are playfully parodied in the foibles and petty squabbles of well-known courtesans, geishas and tea-house waitresses. The names of these two sumptuously dressed women are included here, although banned from later editions.

This album - the only known complete set of these prints - once belonged to Edmond de Goncourt (1822-1896) who published the first book about Utamaro in the West.

Bought in 1945 for only 50 guineas, this rare album is the single most important contribution by the Friends to the Japanese prints collection: the foundations were first laid by Cockerell and continued under Louis Clarke as Honorary Keeper.

Since then, Friends' money has been used to add many important and rare prints, supplementing the major gifts that shaped the collection earlier in the 20th century.

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The Fitzwilliam Museum : A Century of Giving Introduction

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