One of Australia’s most significant collections of Japanese art is on show for the first time in a new exhibition at the National Library of Australia, Melodrama in Meiji Japan.

The art form is known as kuchi-e – woodblock prints – is used to illustrate Japanese novels and complement the stories which reflect the ruthless world of the Meiji period in Japan, from 1868 to 1912.


Exhibition curator, Dr Gary Hickey, explains that the Meiji period was a time of great upheaval in Japan, with the transition of the country from a feudal society to an emerging Western-style state.

“This upheaval was reflected in a dramatic change in people’s lives,” he says.

“Influenced by the West, this change was reflected in new literary forms and innovative means of reproducing images for published works.

“Prominent in this period were literary frontispieces known as kuchi-e.

“Artists used the medium of the traditional multicolour woodblock print in images to illustrate stories that stressed the melodramatic.”

Dr Hickey has drawn on the substantial collection of kuchi-e, which was donated to the National Library by University of NSW Emeritus Professor, Richard Clough, from 2010 until his death in 2014.

“This collection, along with other works acquired by the library, forms one of the most significant collections of this genre in the world and the largest focused collection of Japanese art in Australia,” he adds.

“The exhibition features more than 20 artists and a range of subjects – all filled with drama, tragedy and intrigue – which reflected the Meiji times.”


Melodrama in Meiji Japan is on show at the National Library of Australia

24 May to 27 August, 2017.

Free exhibition – open daily 10am-5pm.

Image credit (in order of feature)

Keishū Takeuchi (1861-1942), Beauty under the moon (Gekka no bijin) 1896, woodblock print, nla.obj-152411793

Kodō Yamanaka (1869-1945), Firefly (Hotaru) 1913, woodblock print, nla.obj-152422444

Keishū Takeuchi (1861-1942), Dawn (Akatsuki) 1912, woodblock print, nla.obj-152406698

Shoen Ikeda (1888-1917), The departing Spring (Yuku haru) 1913, woodblock print, nla.obj-152477362

Eisen Tomioka (1864-1905), Tsuma no kokoro (A wife’s heart) 1901, woodblock print, nla.obj-152406399