Written out of history: a female Edo master’s story


The Printmaker’s Daughter, by Katherine Govier. Harper Perennial, 2011, 512 pp., $14.99 (paperback)

In this story of Katsushika Oei, the little- known daughter of the late Edo Period printmaker Hokusai, the author examines not only the constraints of politics and censorship under which artists worked, but the imperative, in a robustly commercial city, to make ends meet.

Art was often regarded as decadent. Because the number of artists in Edo was too numerous, the authorities waged a sporadic war on their work. Terror was an official requirement, and as Govier writes, “Failure to feel fear was an offense under the law.” Sharp-tongued and cantankerous, it was a wonder Hokusai was never clamped in irons like other artists of the day such as Utamaro.

Hokusai was a versatile artist who could turn his hand to anything. He painted equally well with his left or right hand, painted with his fingernails, between his knees or above his head. At Gokoku-ji temple, he announced he was going to paint a huge picture using sumi ink and a giant brush made from reeds.

For the shogun he produced something even more outrageous — a long sheet of paper covered in curving blue lines.

After daubing a cockerel’s feet in red paint, he chased it along the canvass, calling the work “Red Maples Along Tatsuta River.”

In the face of authorial oppression you would expect the art world to have been a supportive fraternity, but Govier portrays a fiercely, backbiting community, the whole snarling world of Edo. You could be the most famous artist in the city and still not know where the next meal came from. There were other ironies in the life and work of Hokusai and Oei. While forgeries of their work sold well in the countryside, they often grubbed for work in Edo.

For Oei, Edo was an education in the world. Hokusai took his daughter everywhere, including the lower ranks of teahouses and brothels. Here the customers and patrons were alternatively meanhearted and generous, deferential or salacious, given to carousing or brooding, to bad-mouthing the authorities or to spying for them. It was among the hard drinkers, fornicators and dissolute artists that Oei learnt to paint.

Although the banter Govier has created for her courtesans has theatrical value, less successful is the effort to render the period vernacular of the pleasure quarter women into a serviceable contemporary equivalent. To hear an indentured women of the 1820s declare, “That is, like, so cool!” creates a peculiar dissonance. When an author writes as well as Govier, however, these are forgivable lapses.

If we are to believe this reconstruction of her personality, Oei was a gifted contrarian, with a loathing for conventional femininity. Some male artists and writers admired her stance and the air of social fissure she created; others concluded that she was a witch. Oei was married for a short period but, dissatisfied with her husband, divorced him, an unusual measure at the time, but one that reinforces the sense of the artist’s self-determination.

The recuperation of Hokusai’s power at the age of 70, yielded his majestic “Thirty-six Views of Fuji.” But as Hokusai’s health gradually gave out, he relapsed into superstition and a dependence on quack cures and treatments. In Govier’s well-researched account, it was at this stage that his dependence on Oei grew.

The brilliance of the father is not in doubt, the authorship of some of the work is. There are experts who assert that certain works simply could not have been executed by Hokusai, particularly in his more advanced years when he suffered from sever palsy, which would have made his hand and judgment unsteady at best. “Tiger in Snow,” is a case in point, and one of many. The delicacy of line and weightlessness of the image, typical Oei features, belie the claim the work was painted by Hokusai in his final year, at the age of 89. In an age that was relentlessly harsh on women, we are left with the startling possibility that Oei was a superior painter than her father.

The author explores the complex emotions of a daughter devoted to a father who denies her rightful recognition. The author’s Oei concludes, quite plausibly, “In not letting me sign my name, he wrote me out of history.”

Govier’s story is a step in restoring the faded monotint of Oei’s life to the vibrant pigments and mineral colors of her age.