"Underdogs and Antiheroes" at the Asian Museum of Art - Washington DC

"Underdogs and Antiheroes" at the Asian Museum of Art - Washington DC

We recently visited Washington DC on a 5-day vacation. I searched for any museums that were exhibiting Japanese prints. Fortunately, the Smithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art had an exhibit titled "Underdogs and Antiheroes, Japanese Prints from the Pearl and Seymour Moskowitz Collection". It was buried on the basement floor of the museum, but I was excited to find that it focused on many of my favorite artists and genres. The timeframe of the exhibit was the early modern period of Japan (1800 - 1900). The exhibit displayed inspired themes of the rising lower classes, sumo wrestlers, firefighters, folk heroes, and legends. The artists included many of my favorites, Hiroshige, Kunichika, Yoshitoshi, Yoshiiku, Kuniteru, Kunisada, Kuniyoshi, and others. I took some photos, but not with the intention of writing a blog article, so I apologize for the poor images. 

The exhibit was divided into 5 major themes. I'll go through them and include photos of a few of the prints from each.


Sumo Wrestlers

Apologies to sumo fans but I'm afraid I didn't spend much time with the Sumo prints since it's not a genre I'm that interested in. I did attend a sumo match in Japan in the early 1980's and Emperor Hirohito made a surprise appearance to watch, but even with that, I don't generally collect sumo prints. There was this interesting triptych by Kuniteru (Aioi Matsugorō at Shinkawa) that shows a cityscape, the sumo wrestlers and their entourage but that's the only photo I took. 

sumo wrestlers

Heroes of the Suikoden

The next theme was "Heroes of the Suikoden" (water margin). This is the series that catapulted Kuniyoshi to fame in 1827 due to his depiction of the 108, larger-than-life warriors from the Chinese epic novel, the Water Margin, engaged in exciting fighting scenes. The amazing tattoos that Kuniyoshi added to these heroes, boosted the popularity of tattoos among the general public. In this print below, the medicine seller and Mu Chun fight. 

mu chu fight


In these two 1861 prints by Kunisada, we see actors from a kabuki play "Suikoden of the Tenpo Era". These stylish gangsters flourished in the final days of the Tokugawa government. 



Finally this unusual and amusing triptych (Present Day Water Sports (Tōsei suikoden)) by Yoshiiku, shows tattooed gangsters playfully attired in oyster diver's red skirts - a play on the "water margin" theme. 

Tōsei suikoden



The firemen section had some wonderful prints by Yoshitoshi showing the two aspects of the fireman's world. First, a famous print from his 100 Aspects of the Moon, with the fireman, deep in the blaze, holding his standard as the ashes fall around him. The other side of the fireman's world depicts the fireman's wife, anxiously waiting at home for him to return from a fire. 

Yoshitoshi - firemen

A crossover print from the sumo theme shows a fight between sumo wrestlers and firemen, the "Me Brigade Riot of 1805". Of course Kunichika's print is of a fictionalized version of the true story made for the kabuki theatre. Note the tattoos on the firemen. 

tatsugoro print


Another great print by Kunichika is from his 100 Roles of Baiko series. Here, Baiko plays the firefighter Tatsugoro, whose name contains the character for "dragon" notice the dragon tattoo on his arm.

Baiko plays the firefighter Tatsugoro


Next in this grouping are two prints from Yoshitora of firemen holding their brigade standards, from the series "Flowers of Edo for Children's Amusement" (Edo no hana kodomo asobi). I especially like the way the blocky kanji text is designed and laid out on these prints. 


The Oil Thief

This was a story I wasn't familiar with, or at least, I'd seen prints from this legend before but didn't know the backstory. Although there are several versions of this tale, the general theme is that of oil being stolen from the temple at night and the capture of the thief who was either a monk or someone disguised as a monk. 

In this triptych by Kunichika we see the oil thief about to be confronted by Taira no Tadamori. The print description mentions that Kunichika purposely put the oil pot in the center panel so that buyers of the print had to purchase all three panels of the triptych in order to get the complete story.

oil thief


In this print below, by Kuniteru, we see the oil thief is violently accosted by Taira no Tadamori.

Kuniteru print


One of the great gems of this exhibition is Hiroshige's version of the Oil Thief story that has both his original ink sketch (with visible corrections by Hiroshige) and the final color print.

Hiroshige oil thief

Hiroshige oil thief2



The last group of prints centered around the tales of Danshichi Kurobei, based on a real Osaka fishmonger who committed murder in 1744. There are many stories and plays around this generally sympathetic character.

One key scene is that of Danshichi washing himself of mud or blood. In this print by Kunisada from 1855 we see Danshichi killing Giheiji as a noisy parade passes in the street behind them. 

Danshichi killing Giheiji


This next print also by Kunisada, we see Danshichi in an exaggerated pose that fully displays the gruesome murder and his tattoos, the noisy parade passing in the background. 

Kunisada Danshichi


In this triptych by Kunichika from the play "A Mirror of the Osaka Summer Festival" (Natsu Matsuri Naniwa Kagami) we see an inset image of the man who helped Danshichi escape the village after the murder. I couldn't help think of our modern day "reaction videos" when I saw this print.

Kunichika danshichi


Finally we have another print by Kunisada, one of my favorites, from his 1853 "Heroic Commoners in Kabuki" series, of Danshichi washing himself with water from the well. 

Heroic Commoners


Part of the genius of this exhibition was displaying several prints by different artists of the same story, allowing us to see multiple interpretations of the subject. It's easy to see the attraction of collecting multiple images around a theme. If you get a chance, please visit the museum. This exhibit runs from March 19, 2022–January 29, 2023. Big thanks to Pearl and Seymour Moskowitz for the gift of this exhibition. 

Here is a link to the museum exhibit page https://asia.si.edu/exhibition/underdogs-and-antiheroes-object-gallery/ note that not all the prints depicted here were on display.

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