The relationship between artists who are contemporaries is always complex. Working within the same spheres of influence, artists often create complementary work, but competition naturally occurs. This dichotomy is at the core of the exhibition “Showdown! Kuniyoshi vs. Kunisada,” opening in August. Drawing exclusively from works in the MFA’s preeminent Japanese collection, Sarah E. Thompson, curator of Japanese art, has prepared an exhibition of one hundred outstanding works by Kuniyoshi and Kunisada. The artists, part of the Utagawa school, were the two best-selling designers of ukiyo-ewoodblock prints in 19th-century Japan. In the tradition of master-apprentice relations, the first character of each artist’s name (Kuni) was derived from the last character of their master’s name, Toyokuni.

Kunisada (1786 –1865) was the popular favorite during his lifetime. Working during the golden age of Kabuki theater, which pre-dated photography, he developed the most realistic portraits of Kabuki actors. His portraits provided a new level of visibility to the theater within Japan and then later to a global audience as Japan ended its 200-year period of international isolation. Kunisada was also known for his sensual images of beautiful women, as shown in a number of the works in the exhibition.

Kuniyoshi (1798–1861), though not as popular during his lifetime as Kunisada, was well respected for his warrior prints and images of supernatural monsters. Today’s renewed interest in Kuniyoshi’s work clearly relates to the popularity of manga and anime, art forms that may well be rooted in the artist’s prints. His use of the rich colors and patterns may be a result of working at an early age with his father, a silk dyer. Kuniyoshi is also known for his ability to imbed veiled criticisms of the ruling shogun in his work.

Will you be able to choose a favorite between these two artistic rivals?

This fall, Patron Fellows enjoy an exhibition tour and lecture with Sarah, followed by a Japanese-inspired reception.