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Kitagawa Utamaro was praised for his 'tender' paintings of Japanese women. But did they show more scorn than love?

He was girl-crazy. For 200 years Japanese artists had shown bijin- ga - pictures of beautiful women. But with Kitagawa Utamaro (c1756-1806) it was something else. Women of all ranks and walks of life populate his work. Clearly the man was obsessed. He shows them at work and at home, sewing and looking after children. In particular, though, he presents the high-ranking courtesans of Yoshiwara, the brothel quarter of the imperial capital.

In Lovers in an upstairs room of a tea-house, one of the scenes from Utamaro's Utamakura (Poem of the Pillow), the artist gives us one of the world's most enduring images of the tenderness of love-making. The woman has her back to the viewer and the couple are faceless, except for the man's right eye, focused unswervingly on those of his lover, whose tiny, thin-fingered hand reaches out to caress his chin. Intimacy is expressed not through expression, but through gesture, the almost painful delicacy of touch and the veiled intertwining of limbs.

Such intimacy is not rare in the work of Utamaro. With unprecedented candour, he portrays women at their most private moments. Not until Degas and Lautrec did any Western artist consistently depict with such apparent sensitivity the everyday intimacies of female life. Indeed, Utamaro was himself a considerable influence on the work of the late 19th-century French avant-garde, and Degas owned a number of his works.

The analogies with the French artists seem obvious. In Fujin sogaku juttai (1792), for example, Utamaro explores the changing expressions of the female face in an attempt to convey differences in mood. This physiognomical journey continued the following year with Kasen koi nobu, in which he attempted to define the way the female face can show the various forms of love.

But, while such exercises certainly involved considerable understanding of their subjects, or even empathy with them, their true purpose was very far from those of the Impressionists. In effect, Utamaro was providing the male sex with a user's manual to womankind, just as in his earliest drawings of insects he had provided hints at entomological classification.

Seen in this repellent context, Utamaro's 1802 series of moralising paintings, which admonish women for shoddy housework and self-indulgence, cease to be the amusing satires on Japanese male-dominated society for which they are often taken and become evidence of the artist's increasing chauvinism. Similarly, the Saki-wake Rotoba no hana of the same year, in which the artist, with apparent liberalism, allows his female characters to communicate the skittish thoughts of a teenage girl and the idle gossip of a grandmother, are no longer charming, but critical and patronising. In particular, the unpleasant truth of Utamaro's paintings is confirmed by a closer examination of the reality behind the Utamakura.

Japanese sexuality, as evinced in modern Manga comics, seems to Western eyes at best curious, at worst brutally sadistic. Utamaro's century was no different, and his sheen of tenderness hides the fact that the courtesans of the Yoshiwara, while certainly skilled in the art of love, were little more than indentured sex-slaves, often riddled with venereal disease. Ultimately, all Utamaro's supposedly elegant and innovatory celebrations of the wonder of womanhood are no more than a beautiful lie.

n 'The Passionate Art of Utamaro' is at the British Museum, 31 Aug to 22 Oct