“On Stage in Osaka: Actor Prints from the MFA Collection” includes distinctive prints made during the nineteenth century in Osaka that have never before appeared in an exhibition. Until recently, interest in Japanese prints has focused primarily on the works made in Tokyo (called Edo until 1868). From the late seventeenth to the early twentieth centuries, artists in Edo produced single-sheet woodblock prints of subjects including actors, beautiful women, historical scenes, and landscape. The Osaka print tradition, by contrast, concentrated almost exclusively on the Kabuki theater and featured an exaggerated, caricature-like quality that almost certainly influenced major Edo artists such as Sharaku and Toyokuni I.

Osaka prints are also noteworthy for the very high quality of the materials and printing techniques. In Edo, deluxe features such as metallic pigments, burnishing, and embossing were generally limited to privately commissioned prints and did not appear on the ordinary commercial prints sold in stores; in Osaka, however, such embellishments were much more common. The jewellike beauty of the brilliant colors and fine printing, together with the emotional intensity of the theatrical scenes depicted, gives Osaka prints a special place in the Japanese print world.

These prints are among the thousands being researched as part of the Japanese Print Access and Documentation Project (JPADP), whose long-term goal is to photograph and catalogue some 50,000 Japanese prints in our collection.