Exhibition branding for Melodrama in Meiji Japan

Step into the tumultuous world of Meiji Japan (1868–1912), through a selection of stunning Japanese woodblock illustrations. Used to illustrate Japanese novels, these beautiful images, known as kuchi-e (literally, ‘mouth/opening picture’), accompany stories filled with drama, tragedy and intrigue, reflecting the uncertainty of the times.

Curated by Dr. Gary Hickey, the exhibition draws upon a substantial collection of kuchi-e amassed by University of NSW Emeritus Professor Richard Clough (1921-2014) and donated to the Library. This collection, along with other works acquired, forms one of the most significant collections of this genre in the world and the largest focused collection of Japanese art in Australia. The exhibition features over twenty artists and a range of subjects, illustrating a fascinating history of a genre profiled for the first time in a major exhibition.

A word from the curator, Dr. Gary Hickey

The upheaval accompanying the transition of Japan from a feudal society to an emerging modern western-style state during the Meiji period was reflected in a dramatic change in people’s lives. With society in flux, traditional values and relationships were challenged. Reflecting this shift, the publishing industry began adapting new western mechanical methods for reproducing text and images. They distributed stories in new literary forms illustrated by a younger generation of artists who drew upon both traditional and modern representation.

Prominent in this period of transition were literary frontispieces known as kuchi-e. Using the medium of the traditional multi-colour woodblock print in images, they illustrated stories that stressed the melodramatic, with women overwhelmingly the protagonists and readers of these literary works.

Meiji WordPlay

Explore our family space and experience Japanese art and culture through fun craft, drawing and reading activities. Open daily in the Exhibition Gallery, 10am-5pm

Supported by The Japan Foundation, Sydney

The Japan Foundation, Sydney logo


Exhibition highlights