Ephemeral beauty in the lives of Edo women

by Yoko Haruhara

The Ota Memorial Museum of Art, Tokyo, is currently hosting an exhibition of Edo Period (1603-1867) ukiyo-e woodblock prints from the Museum for Art and Craft Hamburg, Germany. The museum houses one of the finest ukiyo-e collections in Europe, and has lent 237 pieces from its 5,000 piece collection, including wood- block prints, drawings and illustrated woodcuts by master artists. The collection reflects the vision of the museum’s founder, Justus Brinckmann (1843-1915), who established the space to provide the German public the opportunity to study the craftsmanship of ukiyo-e artists.

The term “ukiyo-e,” which literally means “art of the floating world,” reflects the transformation of the Buddhist belief that the world of human existence is both transitory and fleeting. What started as a religious ideology was transformed by the citizens of Edo (old Tokyo) into an aesthetic code that reveled in demonstrations of ephemeral beauty. The setting for ukiyo-e art is the world of Edoites’ indulgences, including kabuki theaters, tea houses and the entertainment district.

Perhaps one of the best ways to learn about the world of ukiyo-e is to explore the women depicted in this art form. Two of the master artists appearing in this exhibition, Kitagawa Utamaro (ca.1753-1806) and Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) — usually known simply as Hiroshige — have widely varying approaches to portraying the floating world.

Utamaro is perhaps best known for his portraiture of beautiful women. The triptych woodblock print titled “The Cultivation of Polychrome Prints, a Famous Edo Period Product” (1803, pictured) is an amazing example of his work . The three panels create a narrative composition that is viewed from right to left. In each panel, three beautiful women are portrayed in different poses, wearing a variety of garments and hair styles. The artwork depicts the process of printmaking in an atelier. What made the print amusing, novel, and highly eye-catching for the viewer of the time is the fact that women were never engaged in this practice, since printmaking was a man’s occupation.

Utamaro teases viewers, providing an alluring scenario that encourages them to imagine a room filled with a bevy of beauties. In contrast to the seemingly expressionless and stereotypically idealized depictions of women by his predecessors, Utamaro developed a style that reveals the individual characteristics of each of his subjects; some reflective and playful, and others hard at work.

In this print, he provides variety by showing different types of women working side by side. In the right panel, the wealthy publisher, dressed in an expensive, chic, black kimono with a pink cherry blossom pattern is viewing a painting, while the artist, wearing a striped casual vest over her kimono, leans suggestively over the table with her right elbow exposed; in the middle panel, the women are engaged in transferring the print pattern to the woodblock, sharpening the chisel and chiseling the design onto the block. In the scene on the left panel, three other women size paper sheets and hang them to dry.

In contrast to Utamaro’s style, Hiroshige’s approach can clearly be seen in “Rice Paddies in Asakusa and the Torinomachi Festival” (1857, pictured) from the renowned series “One Hundred Famous Views of Edo.”

Unlike Utamaro’s titillating scene that peeks into a fantasy world filled with women, Hiroshige deliberately chooses to hide his subject. The scene is set in a bright, cheerful room of a courtesan in the Yoshiwara pleasure quarters on the day of the Torinoichi Festival, yet the courtesan is coyly out of sight. In leaving us with the scantest of clues, Hiroshige hopes to pique our interest and force us to speculate: “Where is this woman? Why are her quarters in slight disarray, with hair accessories lying on the floor and a towel casually placed on the window sill? What kind of woman keeps this precocious, white cat? How attractive she must be!”

Each artist has taken a unique approach to depicting the beautiful women of the floating world. Utamaro’s skill lies in the casual nature of the subjects he depicts, almost as if the viewers have accidently witnessed something they shouldn’t have. Hiroshige is voyeuristic too, but cleverly forces the viewers to use their imagination. Both are masters of their art, but this not-to-be- missed collection includes many other highlights, including the work of Suzuki Haronobu, Toshusai Sharaku, and Katsushika Hokusai.

“Masterpieces of the Ukiyo-e Collection from the Museum fur Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg” takes place at the Ota Memorial Museum of Art in Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, until Nov. 28. Admission ¥1,000; open 10:30 a.m.- 5:30 p.m., closed Mon. For more information, visit www.ukiyoe-ota-muse.jp.