The art of spying on bathing beauties

by C.B. Liddell

Special To The Japan Times

Women at times are like canvases. You see them on the trains, painting their faces, or else walking around wearing intriguing outfits, usually somewhat poker-faced. Consequently, the thought keeps occurring that perhaps they want to be looked at rather in the same way that a painting is looked at — to be appreciated without acknowledging it.

It is this quality — one that invokes the voyeur — that has made women such suitable subjects throughout the ages for artists such as Goyo Hashiguchi, the early 20th-century print maker, who is the subject of the latest exhibition at the Chiba City Museum of Art.

As with the work of his contemporaries, Kiyokata Kaburagi and Yumeji Takehisa, it is the undominating presence of Hashiguchi’s ladies that paradoxically dominates his works. Their seemingly patient, passive but thoughtful expressions seem to tolerate our gaze as it roves over the gentle curves of their bodies or the gorgeous patterns of their attire.

Hashiguchi, who was often in poor health and died at the age of 41 in 1921, is known for a handful of very high-quality ukiyo-e woodblock prints produced as part of the shin hanga (new prints) movement. Indeed, he was so fussy and exacting about the quality of his prints that after a single collaboration with Shozaburo Watanabe, the famous publisher who was the driving force behind the movement, he was dissatisfied and decided to go it alone.

While featuring excellent examples of his most famous prints, this exhibition greatly expands Hashiguchi’s oeuvre by including pencil sketches, designs, posters, and even oil paintings that he produced while a student at Tokyo School of Fine Arts, under the tutelage of Seiki Kuroda. These tenebrous daubings show that oil painting was never going to be his forte. However, his poster designs, including those he did for an international steamship company and an impressive hanging scroll painting, “Yellow Rose” (1912), reveal the breadth of his talent.

One of the biographically most interesting parts of the show, and indeed the catalyst for the exhibition, is the section on his illustrations for Natsume Soseki’s famous novel “I Am a Cat” (1905).

“We decided to organize this exhibition firstly because we specialize in ukiyo-e prints,” museum curator Junko Nishiyama explains. “But also because two or three years ago a collector entrusted his collection to us and it had a lot of artwork connected to Hashiguchi’s illustrations for ‘I Am a Cat.’ Hashiguchi was acquainted with Soseki through his elder brother who had been a student of Soseki’s.”

Although the illustrations are mildly intriguing and it is interesting to see how many different designs were used for a novel in those days, artistically this is the weakest part of the show. No doubt the academic and historical element of this section provided a useful counterbalance to the numerous frankly suggestive sketches and prints that make up the mass and main artistic interest of this exhibition. But, just as the “pornographic” aspect of baroque European art was mitigated by references to classical myth and occasionally the Bible, Hashiguchi’s nudes can also be viewed “innocently” as a celebration of Japan’s onsen (hot spring) culture.

“In 1911 he went to the hot springs in Beppu in Oita (prefectures in Kyushu) and saw many bathing females,” explains Nishiyama. “In that he found a very impressive theme — bathing girls.”

In artistic terms, Hashiguchi was inspired by the 18th-century ukiyo-e artist Kitagawa Utamaro; but, as Nishiyama points out, there are also traces of a fascination with English Pre-Raphaelite art, most notably in “Woman Combing Her Hair” (1920).

“Natsume Soseki went to Britain, and when he came back he introduced Hashiguchi to many Pre-Raphaelite works of art,” Nishiyama explains.

Although he also tried other subjects in his prints — the landscape “Rainfall at Yabakei” (1918) is particularly impressive — his pencil sketches reveal an artist who was most at home contemplating the female figure and exploring new ways to show it.

The sketches also reveal that Hashiguchi was intrigued by the potential of using reflection to add an extra voyeuristic element of interest to his compositions However, little of this interest made its way into the final prints, except for “Hot Springs Inn Woman” (1920), where we catch a glimpse of nipple in the reflection of the woman bending down to dunk her tenugui towel into a bucket of water. The surreptitious pleasure that this picture gives us has an element of the Peeping Tom about it, but backed up by the knowledge that Japanese ladies in ukiyo-e prints don’t mind too much being spied on, our injured sense of chivalry can be kept within manageable bounds.

“Hashiguchi Goyo” at the Chiba City Museum of Art runs till July 31; admission ¥1,000; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Fri., Sat. till 8 p.m.). For more information, visit www.ccma-net.jp (Japanese only).