Women of quiet strength

The subtle power of feminine beauty roars from the canvases of Shoen Uemura

by Jeff Hammond and Jeff Michael Hammond

Female artists play a significant role in Japan’s art world today, but a century ago, only a few women made a mark in the then male-dominated field. Shoen Uemura stands out as one of the most successful, a status she earned through the relentless study and perfection of her chosen theme of bijin-ga — pictures of beautiful women.

“Uemura Shoen,” at the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, revisits the artist’s career by showing around 90 paintings, which are complemented by more than 30 rarely exhibited sketches.

Uemura was born as Tsune Uemura in 1875. Her father having died just two months earlier, she was brought up by her mother, who ran a Kyoto tea shop. While her mother served the customers, the young Uemura drew pictures in a corner of the shop.

Even before she began formal art training at age 12, her pictures had earned her a reputation among the shop’s customers. By age 15, she was exhibiting her work and went on to win not only awards in official art contests but also commissions from private patrons.

Though the subjects of bijin-ga woodblock prints were usually courtesans, Uemura portrayed ordinary women, either dressed up to go out or pictured in private, domestic moments.

She also painted a number of pictures inspired by female characters in noh theater. Such roles were usually performed by men, but Uemura had women recreate the poses for her works. The model for one of her best-known of these works, the impressively large “Jo-No-Mai,” is said to have been her daughter-in-law, who poses in a confident and dignified manner, her vivid orange kimono dissolving into a luminous cloud pattern at the hem.

The majority of Uemura’s work, however, shows women out and about in all their finery. Again, her great care in color choice for the kimono and obi and her attention to the design and texture of different fabrics give such works a charged vibrancy.

In “Snowflakes” (1944), Uemura positions the figures of two women in the bottom left corner and leaves the rest of the frame empty, apart for the occasional snowflake, to suggest depth. This uncluttered background — common to most of her pictures — allows the figures to stand out all the more. The parasols are rendered as broad, flat shapes in muted hues, so as not to distract from the faces of the women and the vivid coloring of their kimono.

Uemura took great delight in portraying women in different outfits accentuating the seasons of the year, be it a leisurely spring stroll or a battle against elements. In the humid summer months, the season is alluded to by a fan held by the main figure or through another motif within the picture, as in “Firefly” (1944) — the tiny insect being a harbinger of early summer. In “Women Walking Against a Snowstorm” (1911), two young ladies are hit by a strong gust of wind, and Uemura captures the flowing shape of the wind-swept garments with highly expressive outlines in ink — a rather rare example of dramatic action in her work.

One curatorial coup of the exhibition is its coupling of two works, similar in theme or composition, to facilitate comparison. This comes into play in a pair of paintings titled “Sound of the Tabor.” Uemura first sketched her compositions on large paper sheets called shita-zu. Placed under the paper to be painted on, they allowed the outlines to be easily copied later to execute variations on a composition. The two paintings depict a rich merchant’s daughter the moment after she hits a handheld drum. There is nothing wrong with the first painting, completed in 1938, but one can see why Uemura returned to it in 1940. The later version has a more satisfactory color balance, which brings the composition to life.

In “Listening to the Songs of Autumn Insects” (1907), a young lady in a purple-blue kimono and orange obi peeps out from behind a bamboo screen. The parts of her figure shown through the screen are rendered in subdued tones, emphasizing depth and atmosphere. The artist exaggerates the same effect in “Yang Guifei,” which marked a comeback after a slump in her career that lasted several years. A maid fixing the hair of the famed consort to the seventh Emperor of the Tang Dynasty is shown faintly from behind a paper screen, which allows full attention to be paid to the clear and vivid beauty of her mistress.

Uemura was working at a time when Japanese art was going through a period of questioning and some great upheavals. While many artists began producing Western-influenced oil paintings, Uemura stuck to iwaenogu (mineral pigments) and Japanese themes. She strove to invoke dignity in her beautiful women, but a certain distance from her subjects also invited charges that her women resembled porcelain dolls rather than beings of flesh and blood.

This criticism is perhaps valid, though in numerous pictures Uemura succeeded in expressing feelings of quiet strength and other emotions, albeit in her own delicate manner. Toward the end of her life she depicted some of her childhood memories of her mother. In one graceful work from 1943, for example, her mother is seen fixing the paper on shoji doors; in another she threads a needle by the light of the fading evening sky.

Uemura died of cancer in 1949, one year after becoming the first woman to be awarded the Order of Culture.

“Uemura Shoen” at The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo runs till Oct. 17; admission ¥1,300; open daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (Fri. till 8 p.m.). For more information, visit www.momat.go.jp/english/artmuseum/ index.html.