To inaugurate a new gallery devoted entirely to works on paper, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art will exhibit a selection of Japanese prints focusing on the captivating stories and urban legends of individuals who lived on the fringes of society in early modern Japan. “Underdogs and Antiheroes: Japanese Prints from the Moskowitz Collection” recounts the stories of virtuous bandits, tattooed firemen, sumo wrestlers and rogues from the kabuki theater. The exhibition will be on display in the museum’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery March 19 through Jan. 29, 2023.
“Works on paper are characteristic of Asian art, and our new gallery will give our visitors the opportunity to explore the extraordinary richness and diversity of that tradition,” said Chase F. Robinson, the museum’s Dame Jillian Sackler Director. “We are delighted to exhibit Japanese prints from the Pearl and Seymour Moskowitz Collection as the inaugural show in the gallery.”
Pearl and Seymour Moskowitz recognized these classical tales of rough firefighters and urban legends as a central aspect of Japanese culture, which in turn formed the creative backbone of an entire category of visual expression. The Moskowitz Collection focuses on this high point in picture making when stories about complex characters, such as the murderer Danshichi or the bandit-outlaws of the Suikoden, merged real-life events with artistic inventions. The exhibition will explore new visual and thematic ground, further strengthening the museum’s trailblazing role in reconsidering presentations of Asian cultures.
“Over the course of Japanese history, the stories of countless underdogs and antiheroes have inspired a deep affection for narratives of the downtrodden in the arts,” said Kit Brooks, the Japan Foundation Assistant Curator of Japanese Art. “This was especially true during the early modern period, when members of the urban commoner class tried to assert themselves against the ruling samurai by creating a distinctive culture of their own.”
As visitors explore the exhibition, they will encounter key subjects in theater, literature and visual arts that focus on different exemplars of antiheroes and underdogs seen in early modern Japanese society. From scenes of tattooed firemen brawling with rival groups to those of sumo wrestlers enjoying a feast under cherry blossom trees, the exhibition features subjects that are not commonly associated with traditional Japanese print culture but were nevertheless central to the interests of an early modern public. Sumo wrestlers were celebrated and respected even though they lived outside of the traditional class system. Like other ancient rituals, sumo first appears in one of Japan’s national epics, the eighth-century Kojiki, and evolved into a national sport. Its popularity peaked in the late 18th century, eventually eclipsing even that of kabuki theater, the early modern period’s most influential form of entertainment.
“Identifying the struggles of unconventional heroes who prevailed against all odds, townspeople embraced both old legends and new ones,” said Frank Feltens, the Japan Foundation Associate Curator of Japanese Art. “These stories were immensely popular, which enabled savvy publishers, artists and printers to cater to fans hungry for images of these figures.”
All works are part of the Pearl and Seymour Moskowitz Collection, gifted to the museum by Pearl and Seymour Moskowitz. This exhibition is made possible by their support. Support for this exhibition and the museum’s Japanese art program is provided by Mitsubishi Corporation
About the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art is committed to preserving, exhibiting and interpreting exemplary works of art. It houses exceptional collections of Asian art, with more than 45,000 objects dating from the Neolithic period to today. Renowned and iconic objects originate from China, Japan, Korea, South and Southeast Asia, the ancient Near East and the Islamic world. The museum’s Freer Gallery of Art also holds a signiﬁcant group of American works of art largely dating to the late 19th century. It boasts the world’s largest collection of diverse works by James McNeill Whistler, including the famed Peacock Room. The National Museum of Asian Art is dedicated to increasing understanding of the arts of Asia through a broad portfolio of exhibitions, publications, conservation, research and education.
The National Museum of Asian Art was the Smithsonian’s first dedicated art museum and the first art museum on the National Mall. Since opening its doors as the Freer Gallery of Art in 1923, it has acquired an international reputation. The museum is preparing for its centennial in 2023—a milestone celebration and a springboard for the museum’s transformative vision for its next century, which will broaden and deepen the museum’s impact and reach, both onsite and online.