If your cubs crave comic books or are aficionados of Japanese animé, you’ll definitely want to head on over to the incredibly cool Graphic Heroes, Magic Monsters show at Japan Society. What you get to see is the amazing artwork that inspired modern-day animé, the likes of Mothra and Godzilla, and much of what we recognize as classic comic book graphic style, as well as popular tattoo art and manga. All the bold, colorful works are by one incredible artist, Utagawa Kuniyoshi. One more thing. He lived from 1797-1861. (Totally true.) Read on to find out more about this fantastic show with tips on how best to view it.
Though we often associate Japanese woodblock prints with serene blue scenes of flying cranes and flowing rivers, in this exhibition the wild and innovative prints of maverick artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi defy all expectations. Most are very dynamic and dramatic and the bold colors and black outlines seem incredibly modern by any standard. Also, the monsters, goblins, and other mythic creatures that populate most of the work on display reveal a far darker and more satirical imagination at work. Though even battle scenes (man vs monster) are not particularly gory (blood is rendered pretty artistically), timid tots may not take kindly to the creepier creatures so this show is probably best for ages five and beyond unless you take the special tour for tots ages 2-4 (see below)..
To take advantage of the most kid-friendly features of this marvelous show, it’s best to pace yourselves as the show is surprisingly large. When you first walk upstairs you’ll enter a small room with white walls displaying a number of Kuniyoshi’s framed works. Skip this room entirely!; these are all newly-made prints for sale; originals are all in the rooms that follow. However, do glance in at the working artist and his team in the adjacent studio; they are making an original animé movie based on the exhibit and are at work during gallery hours.
The first two and a half rooms of the actual show (past the white gallery) focus on the theme of Fantastic Samurai Warriors fighting Demons, Monsters, Ghosts and other Samurai. Take your time to view a number of these, especially ones in which the monsters or creatures are prominent. The “legends” and painting descriptions here are worth reading and will introduce you to the cast of characters (real and fictional) and give you some helpful background. Do make sure to check out the pages from Kuniyoshi’s sketchbook and the nifty firefighter uniform on which Kuniyoshi painted.
Other rooms (except the last one!) can be viewed much more selectively and you can skip or skim reading descriptions. These include the rooms focusing on Great Samurai Warriors in portrait form or in battle. What you DO want to notice are the cool Samurai tattoos on the warriors (depicted as being Chinese to avoid censorship). Such awesome designs are pretty much what’s walking around on today’s denizens of the East Village and Billyburg. The other thing to start to look out for are the artist’s depictions of any scenes in the rain; using abstract, bold dark rain lines in a very graphic modern way forged a new path for all modern comic graphics to come.
Don’t spend much time on the couple rooms depicting Great Noh Theater Actors (Kuniyoshi was a huge fan) followed by Great Noh Theater Actors Disguised as Heroes (to avoid censorship). Most interesting are the theatrical scenes with the giant cat spirit with crazy cat lady and those of ghostly vengeance (think Japanese Macbeth). Two rooms that follow basically cover Wise Virtuous Women Who Accomplished Great Deeds (including adored geishas depicted as Wise Virtuous Women because depicting geishas was ultimately banned too). Cruise quickly through the “pretty lady” portraits and focus on the wall of women warriors demolishing demons and monsters (these rock!) . Also don’t miss the print of the “brave woman” who stops a wild horse from trampling a man by stomping on the reins with her platform shoe! You can quickly scan the subsequent two rooms depicting lovely “landscapes.”
The show ends with his “comic room” and here are some of the biggest kid pleasers. Delightful and funny renderings of octopi, sparrows, and cats are political satire but full of amusing detail in their own right. Also worthwhile are examples of visual trickery such as the Arcimbaldo-like portraits of human faces made up of cleverly positioned human bodies. Check out the artist’s own take on “graffiti” as it’s nearly impossible to believe these humorous caricatures weren’t made in the twentieth century.
My older daughter couldn’t help noticing the exceptionally cool crowd which ran the gamut from hipsters and skateboard punks to the extensively tattooed (some in tartans!). Pretty amazing to see such a funky turnout for nearly 200 year old art!
You can view the show on your own or join one of the Konnichiwa Friends Family Tours for children ages 2-4 and their families on the following dates:
Saturday, May 8, 2pm – 3pm and Saturday, June 12, 2pm – 3pm
Graphic Heroes, Magic Monsters: Japanese Prints by Utagawa Kuniyoshi
333 East 47th Street
Show runs until June 13th. Gallery open Tuesday-Thursday 11 am-6 pm, Friday 11 am-9 pm, Saturday & Sunday 11 am-5 pm. Admission is $12, children under 16 free. Family tours are free with regular adult admission. Admission Free to all on Fridays from 6-9pm.
Families of older children, ages 8-12, may also enjoy the following event related to the show:
Art Cart: The Magic of Print Making
Sunday, May 16, 2 PM — 4 PM
After enjoying a gallery lesson based on the Graphic Heroes, Magic Monsters show, families will make prints using some of the same techniques used by Kuniyoshi. Tickets for this event are $15 per family (up to 5 people) or $10 per family with one Japan Society Member. For tickets to this event call (212) 715-1224.