The talented women of Kyoto

by Matthew Larking

“Women Artists of Kyoto: Bearing Burdens / Burdens Born” is ostensibly about the classification of female artists since the late 19th century. The term “keishu-gaka” refers to accomplished women artists, “joryu-gaka” to post-World War II artists who created trends among male colleagues and “josei-gaka” simply emphasizes the feminine gender of an artist.

Distinguishing between male and female interpretations of art has been historically important in Japan, and remains so. In the 1990s, the critic Kotaro Iizawa gave the name “onnanoko shashinka” (girl photographers) to an emergent generation of female artists with a penchant for taking brightly-colored photographs of everyday and intimate scenes.

The visual thrust of this exhibition, however, concerns the larger theme of the way female artists have represented women in accord with their times. The exhibition begins with idealized depictions of femininity that were the requisite of late 19th-century female artists and progresses to further psychologically and aesthetically complex portrayals of womanhood. All the works are nihonga (Japanese-style painting), as yoga (Western-style painting) was considered a masculine domain, periodically castigated for its immoral subject of the nude, which is brought under scrutiny in a final section of the show.

Shoen Uemura (1875-1949), the archetypal keishu-gaka, depicts an elegant femininity in “A Fine Day” (1941), where a woman handles a piece of cloth. Special attention is given to the hairstyle and kimono — distinctive markers of the woman’s high social class, and stylistically suggestive of an Edo Period (1603-1968) inheritance.

Uemura was perhaps the most important female painter of her day, and her status and wealth were commensurate with her male contemporaries. Her focus was bijin-ga (portraits of beautiful women) and she helped elevate the genre to the top echelons of nihonga. Though her work was largely conservative, sharing Meiji Era (1868-1912) ideals of femininity that embraced familial roles and domesticity, Uemura’s personal social situation as a single mother was striking in contrast. Her son, born in 1902, was thought to have resulted from an affair with her teacher, Suzuki Shonen (1849-1918) — a married man. Care of the boy was left to her mother, and Uemura supported the family through painting.

While Uemura’s figures tend to lack individuality, Ito Shoha’s middle- upper-class ladies, such as in “Summer” (1920), display emotional turns. Here a woman sits on a window sill looking bored, sad even, and Ito’s facial expressions are less doll-like and more individualized than Uemura’s. Shoha’s social situation, too, stands in direct contrast to Uemura’s. Ito was a faithful housewife and a mother of three, a situation that buoyed her public reception to almost overtake that of Uemura during the Taisho Period (1912-26).

Hisako Kajiwara (1896-1988) grew up in the democracy that characterized the Taisho Period, and the themes of her work moved further down the social ladder. Part of the Jinsei-ha (Humanist School), Kajiwara depicted mental disability with paintings such as “Sisters” (1916), representing the physiognomy of Down Syndrome, and “Tramstop Towards Nightfall” (1918), showing a world-weary woman leaning on her umbrella as she waits for her ride home.

Kajiwara’s pictorial world is a sad and tired one that has been executed in precise detail, earning her the criticism of “vulgar realism.” Her techniques were a nod in the direction of Western-style painting, not usually part of a woman’s sphere of activity. Her later work from the 1930s, however, concedes to a rosier, less socially engaged view of life.

For Tatsu Hirota (1904-90), that shift from challenging to conservative is observed in reverse. Unlike Europe, Japan had no tradition of the idealized nude as one of the highest form of beauty. Instead, if one looks to the closest native predecessor, ukiyo-e (woodblock prints), the social position of the nude was low, and late 19th-century and early 20th-century audiences responded with according disdain. When the nude first appeared in nihonga during the 1910s, she tended to be treated grotesquely by male artists. Later depictions by the female artist Shima Seien (1892-1970), however, offered an alternative.

The nude essentially remained a proscribed subject for women until post-WWII society permitted otherwise. In 1945, Hirota was painting conventional compositions, such as “Mother and Child,” but in 1951 she portrayed “Nude,” a mildly abstracted naked body and a formal experiment in line and color. By the ’70s, she was depicting women undressing, and by the ’80s and ’90s, her full nudes went for bare eroticism. Though something of an exception, Hirota released female sensuality instead of restraining it. Rather than a radical challenge to convention, however, late 20th-century nihonga only sanctioned such subjects because of their prior uptake by male artists. The male nude, on the other hand, remains anathema.

“Women Artists of Kyoto: bearing burdens / burdens born” at the Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art runs till Sept. 5; admission ¥500; open 9 a.m.-5 p.m., closed Mon. For more information, visit