Because of this, complex cultural questions inform a recent two-part exhibition entitled All About Nikuhitsu Ukiyo-e Painting at the Idemitsu Museum of Arts. The current installment of this exhibition presents a rare opportunity to view ukiyo-e paintings, as opposed to the ubiquitous woodblock prints – most famously of Hokusai and Hiroshige – which foreigners easily identify and connect to Japanese art. According to the exhibition brochure, the paintings were used as drafts, perhaps to work out final designs for the prints, which are usually more graphic in nature. Though links to the prints are clear, in terms of style and subject matter, it is fascinating to closely observe the differences in detail made possible by this medium. Still, the context-specific issue of woman-as-object cannot be ignored in the majority of these works, which feature images from the pleasure quarters of long ago.
This second section of the exhibition – the first ran during May – shows subtle and interesting changes over the two hundred year history of ukiyo-e, during the Edo period. Starting with late 17th century genre scenes of the pleasure quarters, the show includes a large number of painted scrolls and screens, as well as some 3D pieces. One work, by Furuyama (Hishikawa) Moroshige, titled The Yoshiwara Pleasure Quarter, is comprised of two folding screens and shows a typical scene of elaborately dressed women posing and attending to men. Stylistically there is minimal color in the background so the vividness of the kimonos really stands out. With only a restricted view inside curtained rooms, the overall modesty and restraint of the scene provides a seductive twist for those of us used to more flagrant European representations of female nudes. Red, the color of passion, is used selectively as a color for highlights. One standout piece in the first room is an early 18th century scroll titled Beauty with a Toy by Hishikawa Moroyasu. Unlike many of the portraits, where the focus is on a patterned kimono – ironically the body is almost always completely covered, so it is a different sort of doll-like objectification – in this piece the solid colored layers of fabric form a perfect curve with the figure, a woman who is looking back over her shoulder. Her full face, with small, slight features registers as completely generic, but I’m not trained in the subtleties of ukiyo-e painting and modes of representation. This, along with my western perspective, certainly informs (or un-informs?) my reading of these portraits: that these are primarily women as pretty things to be looked at as opposed to individualized, determinant human beings. Another notable piece, called Beauty and Demon by Kubo Shunman, from the late 18th century, offers a clever contrast between a grotesque monster and a beautiful woman. The folds in his garment match the wrinkles of his skin, which are sharp and angled, whereas she is round and curved. Interestingly, they are chatting and she does not seem in the least bit afraid.
Many of the later works are larger and more accomplished in terms of size, detail, and coloring. A piece by Katsukawa Shunsho from the late 18th century features a bigger format with more detailed backgrounds and attention to rendering realistic perspective. Parody of Lady Murasaki by Kawamata Tsunemasa from the mid 18th century shows a woman sitting outdoors, next to a calligraphy table. She looks slimmer and more delicate than the earlier depictions of women, echoing a subtle change in the ideal, and she seems wistful and lost in thought. Perhaps this represents some slight feminist progress? At least now she appears to have a brain. Beauties Playing with Shuttlecock also features a little more activity, and is not so much a depiction of women as passive objects. It is virtually impossible not to view these paintings, like the women, as incredibly beautiful objects, but to discount the inherent complexity of the gender politics represented is to see only the surface.