Sydney Morning Herald Column


Published March 6, 2010
Kitagawa Utamaro, 'The white surcoat', ôban, colour woodblock print

Those dismayed by Senator Conroy’s heavy-handed attempts to censor the internet might spare a thought for Japanese publishers of the late eighteenth century completely at the mercy of an imperial regime that imposed bans and restrictions at will. This is what happened in 1790 when a new Chief Councillor set out to correct the “decadent” policies of his predecessor. As part of the Kansei reforms (anything nasty is always called a ‘reform’), it was strictly forbidden to produce books or printed matter that depicted contemporary events. But this was only the start. As Khanh Trinh, the Art Gallery of NSW’s Curator of Japanese Art notes: “books that contained unorthodox ideas, had morally debased and obscene contents, or were sumptuously illustrated bearing ‘rhetorical flourishes’ were also banned.”
This didn’t leave much room for manoeuvre. Where would we be today without our regular diet of news and gossip? How would we appease our insatiable appetite for obscenity and moral debasement? Admittedly, the taboo on rhetorical flourishes has merit.
For Utamaro Kitagawa (c.1753-1806) and his publisher, Tsutaya Juzaburo, the situation was scarcely less drastic. Before the new edicts came into force, Tsutaya had made a handsome living publishing illustrated guidebooks to the Yoshiwara district of Edo – the former name for Tokyo. The Yoshiwara was the red light district of the old capital, although it did not bear much resemblance to our contemporary notions of those sordid neighbourhoods. Even so, it was too morally suspect to be the subject of any popular publication.
Tsutaya and Utamaro watched their main business disappear overnight, and knew they would have to find ingenious ways to maintain a market without offending the censor. It was a severe test for an artist who had made his reputation with his masterful portraits of famous courtesans, his style being imitated by many lesser talents. Those portraits, their emulations, and the ways the artist found to get around the oppressive laws of his time, are the subjects of Utamaro: Hymn to Beauty at the AGNSW, a show largely drawn from the holdings of the Asian Art Museum in Berlin.
Although the subtitle comes from Baudelaire’s Les fleurs du mal, it provides a wonderfully appropriate evocation of Utamaro’s work. Baudelaire owes his poetic renown to his ability to find beauty in the most squalid and disreputable subjects, making the gutter into a veritable temple. Utamaro spent much of his career creating beautiful images of prostitutes and working women at a time when women were considered to be little more than items of property. This was not merely a cosmetic exercise intended to impart a spurious glamour to lives of sexual slavery or drudgery. There is an intimacy and dignity in Utamaro’s pictures that transcends the demands of the market place. He comes across as a man who loved women, in many different aspects.
The ambiguities in Utamaro’s portraits of courtesans reflect the ambiguities in the popular perceptions of these women and of the Yoshiwara itself. For most of those who bought Utamaro’s images, the courtesans were as untouchable as supermodels, Hollywood actresses and pop stars. They were the fantasy sex symbols of their age, the first women to display the latest fashions and hairstyles. To poor commoners, the Yoshiwara seemed an enchanted kingdom of illicit pleasures, forever beyond their means.
The courtesans were high-class prostitutes whereas for the geishas sexual services were not officially part of the bargain. It was sex rather than culture that drew crowds to the Yoshiwara, but upper class customers expected more for their money, and leading courtesans and geishas were skilled in the arts of music, dance and the theatre. This is the world celebrated in Utamaro’s prints. There is never a suggestion that any woman might be unhappy in this life, into which they were most probably sold during childhood. There is no hint of the violence and sexual disease that were commonplace at the time.

It would be absurd to expect Utamaro to broach such subjects. He was not a realist, intent on exposing social evils and hypocrisy, but a maker of ideal, stylised forms. We may feel that his “Beauties” all look remarkably similar, but each is a subtle variation within a clearly defined canon of taste. These elegant, statuesque women hardly seem to be creatures of flesh and blood: they are mannequins upon which the most exotic fabrics are draped. To the purchasers of the prints they were exemplars of feminine charm.
Looking at these pictures simply as art, there is a breathtaking fluency in Utamaro’s line, a perfect balance and poise in his compositions. It is easy to forget nowadays that such works were produced in the thousands as cheap, popular decorations. This is one of the reasons that Ukiyo-e prints – those images of “the floating world” – have occasionally been looked down upon by western connoisseurs who favour the unique, precious object. It was only in the late nineteenth century, when the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists became obsessed with these pieces, that a vogue was established in the west.
Ukiyo-e prints are probably the supreme testimony to the fact that an art form can be popular but also highly refined. The abiding flatness of the images; the absence of shadows, tonality or rounded forms; the emphasis on pattern, and the irregularity of composition, were once viewed as alien to the traditions of western art. Modernism changed all that, turning established conventions upside-down and embracing many of the features of the Japanese print.
Utamaro has been among the most admired of all Japanese printmakers. Perhaps only Hokusai and Hiroshige have enjoyed a greater esteem, although they are more broad-ranging in their subject matter. Utamaro could capture landscapes, animals and flowers when he needed to, but more than anything, he is a portrayer of the human form – not just beautiful women, the genre known as bijinga – but handsome youths, everyday men and women, figures of myth and legend, and occasionally Shunga – an exuberant and explicit type of pornography.

Utamaro obviously had a strong libido. When he was banned from making portraits of courtesans, he found a way to infuse his pictures of working women with a subtle eroticism. Many viewers may feel there is very little difference between his three-panelled picture of Women engaged in sericulture, and a triptych of women dancing in a teahouse, by his follower, Chökösai Eisho. Both groups of women are dishevelled and sweaty, although their faces are beautiful masks. Contemporary audiences, just like their earlier counterparts, will probably find the girls in the silk-worm factory sexier than those in the teahouse.
This is ultimately only a selection from Utamaro’s work rather than a full-blown retrospective, and one misses rare but famous images such as The Awabi Fishers, where the bare breasted abalone divers seem at one with the surging waves and rocky foreshores. In this work, as in few others, Utamaro managed to combine a sense of eroticism with the impression of hard, everyday labour.
The closest he comes in this exhibition are not the coy images of breast-feeding that allow a glimpse of what lies beneath an elaborate kimono, but the pictures of a visit to the hairdresser, where the customer narrows her eyes in feline pleasure. It is only a moment, but in the context of draconian censorship, Utamaro makes small gestures carry a lot of weight. From the bottom of the picture the woman’s right hand reaches up to clasp her robe between her breasts, one finger slipped inside its folds.
The tragedy of Utamaro’s career arrived in 1804 when he fell foul of the authorities, not for any perceived obscenity, but for portraying banned historical figures that the government wished to see forgotten. He was sentenced to three days in prison and fifty days of house arrest in manacles that made it impossible to work. There is a grimly romantic view that this punishment broke the artist’s spirit, hastening his decline and death. This cannot be proven true or false, but it is generally acknowledged that Utamaro’s later work represents a falling away from his previous standards. We need not judge him too harshly when we consider that few artists have ever come close to what Utamaro achieved in his prime. Whatever the circumstances of his life and times, he remained a tireless advocate for pleasure.
Hymn to Beauty: the Art of Utamaro, Art Gallery of NSW, February 13-May 2, 2010
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald March 6, 2010