Japanese Art and Utamaro: Illumination of Bijin-ga
Lee Jay Walker
Modern Tokyo Times
The exact date of the birth of Utamaro Kitagawa and strong details about his parents remain shrouded in mystery. It is known that this striking ukiyo-e artist was born in the middle of the eighteenth century and that he died in the early nineteenth century. However, while these details may remain sketchy the artistic skills of this ukiyo-e artist aren’t sketchy because he left a powerful legacy.
Utamaro was especially known for his bijin-ga (art of beautiful women) and studies of nature. In the middle of the nineteenth century his stunning ukiyo-e portraits reached many acclaimed artists in Europe, notably in France. The upshot of this was that he influenced European Impressionists because of aspects of his art related to partial views and other areas related to light and shade.
In the early art of Utamaro you can see the influence of Torii Kiyonaga and Harunobu Suzuki. Also, it is widely accepted that he studied under Toriyama Sekien and that the publisher Tsutaya Juzaburo enabled Utamaro to develop and prosper. This applies to the early part of his artistic career but in time the relationship would cease once Utamaro reached new heights in the early 1790s. Therefore, from 1791 he concentrated on single portraits of ladies rather than women in groups, which was very popular at the time. His half-length portraits would also inspire many artists in later generations in Japan and much further afield.
It is stated that Utamaro would find models from either the streets of Tokyo or from the sexual known area called Yoshiwara, which is still known for this feature in modern day Tokyo. Also, in the streets of Harajuku, Shibuya, and Shinjuku in modern times, you will often see men asking beautiful ladies for work related to modeling and other areas. Therefore, it is easy to envisage Utamaro doing the same in the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century.
Utamaro didn’t just limit himself to bijin-ga because he also did work related to nature studies, animals, insects, and shunga (erotica). Often, this side of Utamaro is overlooked but clearly he was multi-dimensional. Also, it must be stated that shunga may appear to be more sexual from the non-Japanese point of view. However, in Japan this art form was a way of focusing on the natural side of human behavior.
Dieter Wanczura on the website Artelino comments: “When reading about this artist, you will often find phrases like “No other ukiyo-e artist has painted the beauty of women as deeply as he did”. This has indeed a point. Utamaro’s women express a certain sensitivity that no ukiyo-e artist had achieved before him. He had experimented with some new techniques to display the flesh tones of his women portraits in a different and softer manner.”
Dieter Wanczura continues by stating: “The typical physiognomy of a Japanese woman of the late eighteenth century was certainly far different from the designs of Utamaro. Indeed, his women look more like the models in today’s fashion magazines. Is this the key for an explanation of the success of Utamaro prints?”
Sadly, the last few years witnessed bouts of depression after being imprisoned in 1804 because of his art. This applies to an historical print that he produced which showed Toyotomi Hideyoshi (a pre-Edo leader who helped to unify Japan) with five concubines and his wife. However, this displeased the ruling elites and for this he was put in prison for a brief period (some say 50 days others state the period was much shorter).
Irrespective of the length of time, he took this badly because he felt humiliated and clearly this incident tarnished his reputation among the elites. Sadly, he died two years later but his legacy remains strong because of the stunning pieces of art he produced
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Some art and cultural articles about Japan are republished in order to inform our growing international readership.