September 3, 2011–June 17, 2012

Kawanabe Kyōsai and the Hell Courtesan

The first exhibition in our newly renovated Japanese Print gallery focuses on a recent acquisition, a monumental hanging scroll of the Hell Courtesan by Kawanabe Kyōsai (1831–1889). Known for the charm, eccentricity, and extraordinary skill of his work, Kyōsai gleefully satirized the complex political events of 19th-century Japan in both paintings and prints. Following a brief jail term for excessive criticism of the government, he resumed his career with such masterful works as the Hell Courtesan, which relates the story of a famed 15th-century beauty who wore a robe decorated with scenes from the Buddhist Hell. Her religious belief became sincere after she observed the eccentric Zen monk Ikkyū engaged in a lively dance with a retinue of skeletons. In Kyōsai’s personalized version of the story, traditional images of sin and suffering on the courtesan’s outer robe are replaced by cheerful scenes of the Seven Gods of Good Fortune distributing blessings.


With generous support from the Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Exhibition Fund.