Japan Art and Utamaro: Nature

Japan Art and Utamaro: Nature

Lee Jay Walker

Modern Tokyo Times

Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806) had a deep passion for art. Accordingly, when hearing his name, people naturally think about images of women (bijin-ga) to more sensual prints.

Utamaro was born during the Edo Period. He also focused on other art themes: for example, birds and various angles concerning nature.

The British Museum says, “He excelled at sensuous depictions, at conveying the sense of the glistening skin of the female body and capturing the most delicate nuances of emotional states, in a very different manner from Kiyonaga. Over-production may have contributed to a gradual slackening and coarsening of design sense from the late 1790s onwards, and Utamaro would never recapture his earlier greatness. He produced many illustrated books, erotic prints and some fine paintings.”

In the early period of his career, Utamaro focused on commissions concerning comic kyoka poems. This angle and his illustrations for books enabled him to focus on more extensive prints during Utamaro’s artistic development.

The MOA Museum of Art says, “During the period of Kansei (1789–1800), Utamaro published a series of female portraits in a particular style known as ōkubi-e, depicting only the face or upper torso of women. This sensational attempt of drawing women had a significant impact on the genre of bijinga, bringing fame to the painter.”

Utamaro’s life witnessed sadness during his last decade on this earth. This concerns the death of his patron and friend (Tsutaya Juzaburo died in 1797) – and he was briefly imprisoned for depicting Toyotomi Hideyoshi with prostitutes in his prints.

He had a complex character – and one can imagine how political pressure and being handcuffed during house arrest impacted him mentally.

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