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Focus features two in-depth reviews each month of fine art, architecture and design exhibitions and events at art museums, galleries and alternative spaces around Japan. The contributors are non-Japanese art critics living in Japan.

The Classical Beauties of Ukiyo-e
Christopher Stephens
Like Impressionist paintings and ancient Egyptian relics, ukiyo-e prints are such a constant presence in Japanese museums that it is easy to forget how truly compelling they are. The unique joys and wonders of ukiyo-e are immediately apparent in the Sekai wo miryo shita Yamato nadeshiko: Ukiyo-e bijin-cho (Yamato Nadeshiko Who Charmed the World: A Collection of Ukiyo-e Beauties) exhibition, running through mid-June at the Ashiya City Museum of Art & History near Kobe.

The show of approximately 120 woodblock prints by noted masters such as Keisai Eisen (1791-1848) and Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892) draws on the personal collection of the late Choshiro Kataoka, a local resident and trading company employee who amassed over 300 ukiyo-e during the early 20th century. Kataoka's family donated the works to the museum following the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake of 1995, and since they have almost never been shown publicly, they remain in pristine condition. (Kataoka kept them in an old trunk, also on display next to a picture of him in front of the Great Pyramid of Giza.)

Kikukawa Eizan, Fashionable Beauties of Summer (c. 1820), Kataoka Collection   Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Ukiyo-e Comparison of the Cloudy Chapters of the Tale of Genji -- No. 35: New Herbs (1843-46), Kataoka Collection

The term Yamato nadeshiko, used to describe the idealized Japanese woman in terms of both beauty and breeding, consists of the ancient name for Japan and the word for dianthus, a type of carnation. Though women of this type were considered to be perfect candidates for marriage and motherhood, many of those depicted in ukiyo-e were actually denizens of the "floating world" (i.e., the pleasure quarters of the Edo period) such as courtesans and geisha.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861), an apprentice of Toyokuni and part of the Utagawa school that also produced print artists like Hiroshige and Yoshitoshi, is best known for his delightful pictures of personified animals and "trick art" in which human and animal bodies are combined to form faces and written messages. Though not as innovative, Kuniyoshi's depictions of female beauty are certainly stunning. His work Genji gumouki yoeawase wakana ge (Ukiyo-e Comparison of the Cloudy Chapters of the Tale of Genji -- No. 35: New Herbs, 1843-46), the centerpiece of this exhibition, features many of the defining elements of the print form.

Yae, the wife of Sakuramaru -- both minor characters in the kabuki classic Sugawara denju tenarai kagami (Sugawara and the Secrets of Calligraphy) -- sits beneath a flowering cherry tree preparing a meal with a mortar and pestle. In the upper section of the print, there is a partially unfurled scroll decorated with a poem from the "New Herbs" chapter of The Tale of Genji and a tortoise-shell cat (also mentioned in the chapter). Perhaps this verse, in which a male character implores his lover to stay until total darkness has fallen and the moon can guide her home, is going through Yae's head as she gazes off into the distance.

Utagawa Hiroshige and Utagawa Toyokuni III, "Mishima," from Twin Brushes: Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido (c. 1854), Kataoka Collection

Like many ukiyo-e works, this one is cluttered with writing. A short commentary by the writer Hanagasa Bunkyo on this scene from the kabuki drama is visible on the left just below Yae's right hand, which clutches the pestle. And in addition to the title of the series, displayed on the cover of the scroll, there is a label identifying Yae as Sakuramaru's wife, Kuniyoshi's calligraphic signature and stamp, and a publisher's mark at the bottom. In other words, the print contains a wealth of information regarding the actual and literary provenance of the work which might have been familiar to contemporary viewers but is largely obscure today.

The true beauty of ukiyo-e, however, is that there is always something interesting to look at and think about. Many of the women in these pictures are going about everyday activities like combing their hair, applying makeup, and entertaining their children, though not necessarily in a way that we are familiar with. There are also curious scenes like a fleet of women being escorted across a river on wooden platforms, or on the shoulders of dozens of bare-chested men with long stringy hair, urging us to reflect on this era in which transport was much more primitive.

Seasonal and climatic motifs are another important element in these works. Though the blue gradations at the top of the pictures -- growing lighter as they descend and disappear into the white background -- and the layered shades of red that linger over the mountains are shorthand for sky and sunshine, they exude a warmth and sensuality that belie their abbreviated forms. The sheets of black lines used to express rain might seem exaggerated but are instantly recognizable to anyone who has seen a heavy downpour in Japan. In Niwaka yudachi (Sudden Shower, 1852) by Utagawa Toyokuni III (1786-1864), three women, who were apparently relaxing in a large open room, have suddenly sprung into action following an unexpected outbreak of rain. Outside several figures run for cover as angular bolts of black lightning shoot into the room just inches from the women, causing one to dive into a mosquito net and another to light a stick of incense -- two methods once believed to drive lightning away.

If all of this wasn't enough, there are the intricate patterns and rich color combinations of the women's kimono, which, ornamented with flowers, birds, and bats, seem to rise up from the prints and proclaim their importance as autonomous works of art. And finally, there is the question of feminine beauty. We can only conclude that women bearing an incredible likeness to each other with tiny mouths, long sloped noses, large heads tilted at an angle, and very little in the way of facial expressions were the epitome of beauty in the 18th and 19th century. Unfortunately, there is no one around to explain why.

It makes sense, then, that such a wide cross-section of people, from elderly connoisseurs to young couples on dates and even children, still turn out in droves to see these pictures which present us with a world that looks vastly different from our own but at heart centers on the same essential concerns.

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, Newly Compiled East Nishiki-e: The Tale of Ikushima Shingoro (1883), Kataoka Collection

All images provided courtesy of the Ashiya City Museum of Art & History.

Yamato Nadeshiko: The Beauties of Ukiyo-e
Ashiya City Museum of Art & History
  30 March - 15 June 2014
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Christopher Stephens
Christopher Stephens has lived in the Kansai region for over 25 years. In addition to appearing in numerous catalogues for museums and art events throughout Japan, his translations on art and architecture have accompanied exhibitions in Spain, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Belgium, South Korea, and the U.S. His recent published work includes From Postwar to Postmodern: Art in Japan 1945-1989: Primary Documents (MoMA Primary Documents, 2012) and Gutai: Splendid Playground (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 2013).
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