Japan Society Gallery Exhibition Explores the Life of Cats


Japan Society, Life of Cats, cats, neko, nyanko, nyan, kawaii, ukiyo-e, woodblock prints, art, Hiroshige, Utagawa, felines, exhibition, art, Hiraki Ukiyo-e Foundation, Japan
Utagawa Hiroshige, Asakusa Ricefields and Torinomachi Festival from the series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, 1857. Courtesy Hiraki Ukiyo-e Foundation.

Life of Cats: Selections from the Hiraki Ukiyo-e Collection

Friday, March 13 through Sunday, June 7

Japan Society – 333 E. 47th Street (between First and Second Avenues)

Admission: $12/$10 students and seniors/FREE Japan Society members and children under 16. Admission is free to all on Friday nights, 6:00 pm-9:00 pm.

“Much that is fundamental to the Japanese character can be gleaned from these historic popular prints that feature cats in everyday life and lore,” says Miwako Tezuka, director of the Japan Society Gallery, about the upcoming exhibition Life of Cats: Selections from the Hiraki Ukiyo-e Collection, beginning on March 13.

Since arriving in Japan aboard Chinese ships transporting sacred Buddhist scriptures in the mid-sixth century, cats have proceeded to purr and paw their way into the heart of Japanese life, folklore, and art. The exhibition illustrates the depth of this mutual attraction by mining the wealth of bravura depictions of cats to be found in ukiyo-e woodblock prints of the Edo Period (1615-1867).

Tezuka selected a mix of both iconic and little-known prints, 90 in all, from the world-renowned collection of the Hiraki Ukiyo-e Foundation in Tokyo, which interprets and preserves one of the world’s finest ukiyo-e collections, which was assembled by the late Hiraki Shinji, the founder of the Riccar Sewing Machine Corporation. After World War II, as many great works of ukiyo-e art were being dispersed to foreign collections, Hiraki and a group of supporters set out to preserve the heritage within Japan by acquiring two great holdings, the Saitō and Mihara collections, which form the core of the Hiraki Ukiyo-e Collection today.

Due to restrictions to the amount of light exposure to which the prints can be exposed, roughly half of the prints will be on view through April 26, then the other half will be presented from April 29 until June 7.

The exhibition is divided into five themes: Cats and People, Cats as People, Cats versus People, Cats Transformed, and Cats and Play. Works by Utagawa Hiroshige, Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, and Utagawa Kuniyoshi, who was quite enamored of cats.

Complementing the master prints are manga, porcelain figures, and books, many on loan from private collections in the US.  Young visitors will also be able to play with facsimiles of the unique type of print called omocha-e, or “toy prints,” which were often designed expressly to delight children.

For more information, please visit Japan Society’s website.

Related Programs
All events at Japan Society unless otherwise noted.

  • Conversation: Playful Heart: Cats in Ukiyo-e Prints
    Friday, March 13, 2015, 6:30 p.m. until 8:30 p.m.
    Tickets: $18/$15 Japan Society member (includes exhibition admission)
    “What was ukiyo-e to people during the Edo period?” One of many answers to this question is asobi gokoro, literally translated to “playful heart.” Japan Society Gallery Director Miwako Tezuka talks with Mitsunobu Satō, Director of the Hiraki Ukiyo-e Foundation, about playfulness abundantly expressed in the cat prints from his Foundation. Followed by a reception.
  • Lecture: Feline Fantasies: Cats in the Floating World
    Tuesday, March 17, 6:30 p.m.
    Tickets: $15/$12 Japan Society members, seniors & students (includes exhibition admission)
    Drawing on both the current Japan Society exhibition and the massive Japanese art collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Sarah E. Thompson, Assistant Curator for Japanese Prints at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, examines depictions of cats in three aspects: the elegant cat, a symbol of sophistication and allure; the predatory cat, from helpful mouser to supernatural monster; and the comical cat, an anthropomorphic vehicle for humor and satire.
  • 2015 Japan Society Gallery Benefit Auction
    Wednesday, April 29, 6:00 p.m.
    Tickets: $125/$100 Japan Society members
    Coinciding with the second rotation of Life of Cats, Japan Society’s third annual Gallery Benefit Auction features exceptional contemporary and traditional works by Japanese artists and others deeply influenced by Japan. Pieces by around 30 artists, including Yayoi Kusama, Mariko Mori, Daido Moriyama, Kohei Nawa, and Hiroshi Sugimoto will be up for auction, including cat-themed prints by Utagawa Kuniyoshi and Tsukioka Yoshitoshi. For more information, email auction@japansociety.org.
  • Public Art Installation: Sebastian Masuda’s Time after Time Capsule
    Wednesday, April 29 through September (dates subject to change)
    Dag Hammarskjold Plaza – Second Avenue and E. 47th Street
    Free and open to the public
    Artist and kawaii raconteur Sebastian Masuda will install a nine-foot tall, translucent sculpture of Hello Kitty to be filled with personal objects collected from everyday New Yorkers. Part of an ongoing, multi-city participatory project in New York, Miami, Amsterdam, and future cities, Masuda collaborates with each project’s community to create colorful objects for the sculpture. All sculptures will be united at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, bringing together the contained memories from all of the participating cities.
  • Family Event – Folklore Family Day: Celebrating Children’s Day through Mukashi Banashi
    Sunday, May 3 from 11:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m.
    Tickets – Adults: $15/$12 Japan Society members; Children ages 3-12: $8/$6 Japan Society members; free for children 2 and younger
    Japan Society’s building transforms into the worlds of Japan’s most enchanting and enriching mukashi banashi (folktales). Coinciding with Kodomo no hi (Children’s Day), children of all ages are invited to step into stories through live performances and storytelling, films, oodles of hands-on activities, and even interacting with life-size characters. In addition to unlimited access to the Life of Cats exhibition, children can take home copies of cat-themed omocha-e (toy picture cards) and enjoy the Kitty Cat Crafts activity booth.
  • Book Club: I Am a Cat by Natsume Soseki
    Friday, May 8 from 6:00 p.m. until 8:00 p.m.
    Tickets: $25/$20 Japan Society members, seniors and students (includes admission and refreshments)
    Sip sake or tea and enjoy light Japanese snacks while exploring one of Japan’s most beloved books. Written overt he course of 1904 through 1906, I Am a Cat by Natsume Soseki is a classic of Japanese literature, depicting the lives of people from a stray kitten’s whimsical perspective. Led by Dr. Satoru Saito, Associate Professor of Japanese Literature, Rutgers University. Email gallery@japansociety.org with “Cat Book Club” in the subject line for pre-meeting information.
  • Workshop: Caturday Craft Day
    Saturday, May 16 Session 1 from 12:30 p.m. until 2:30 p.m./Session 2 from 3:00 p.m. until 5:00 p.m.
    Tickets: $40/$35 Japan Society members, seniors, and students (includes gallery admission)
    Maneki neko, Japan’s inimitable “beckoning cat” figurine, is believed to bring luck and fortune. Led by artist-educator Luned Palmer, adult cat lovers and collectors are invited to create their own maneki neko, using Edo period or modern patterns and motifs inspired by Life of Cats. Cat base, paint and pens are provided, and participants are encouraged to bring stickers and other kitty paraphernalia to individualize their creations. Appropriate for ages 16 and up.
  • ASPCA Partnership
    March 13 through June 7
    Japan Society is donating 5% of all sales from the Life of Cats catalogue to the ASPCA, and the organization is hosting ASPCA Adopt-a-Cat street vans at major related events, including the May 3 Folklore Family Day.