Art of Japan: Depictions of women in Edo Period
Modern Tokyo Times
Lee Jay Walker
The Kyoto artist Nishikawa Sukenobu (1671-1750) was born in the Edo Period. He became famous for his own distinctive artistic style. Thus his rich depictions of women appealed greatly to kimono makers. However, while the imperial city of Kyoto conjures up images of high culture, Sukenobu focused on females from all walks of life.
Hyakunin joro shinasadame (Appreciating 100 women) by Sukenobu was published in 1723. This notable achievement came in two volumes. Yet unlike modern Japan, the spectrum he covered would be extremely risky. This concerns Sukenobu depicting women from the empress to prostitutes.
The Met Museum (image above) says, “Nishikawa Sukenobu replaces the princess with a courtesan of the Kyoto pleasure quarters, the cat with a dog, and the courtiers playing kemari with a young woman with a thread ball.”
The artistic liberalism of the day meant this eclectic blend hit the right chord. Therefore, his realistic approach conjures up a plethora of thoughts from privilege to one of the seedier professions – and this appealed to people who bought his art.
Sukenobu’s shunga art – deemed erotic art in Western circles – did draw the ire of censors. Yet it is unimaginable to think depicting the empress and prostitutes in the same volumes of work would have been tolerated in the Abrahamic world in this period of history. Henceforth, a liberal approach to art was granted in this period of the Edo Period despite limitations being addressed from time to time.
Sukenobu expressed his disdain when censorship of his art did occur. His response was often replicated by other artists who faced censorship. Therefore, artists were not afraid to fight against directives that sought to curtail the freedom of art.
His art of women from various walks of life is a real treat.
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