Kitagawa Utamaro was praised for his 'tender' paintings of Japanese women. But did they show more scorn than love?
Tuesday 29 August 1995
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
Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air
Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression
tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Top 20 misconceptions people believe are true
- 2 'We're not heroes, just tourists': Swedish police officers on holiday stop vicious assault on New York subway
- 3 Black Mass trailer: Johnny Depp might have started making good films again
- 4 Jacob Lescenski and Anthony Martinez: Straight student asks gay friend to High School prom and makes a million Twitter friends
- 5 Australian student Tommy Connolly, 23, adopts his pregnant, homeless 17-year-old cousin to give her a chance at 'a better life'
MasterChef, TV review: The final climaxed in a frenzy of herbs and hyperbole
Everyday People project: Photographer Pablo Conejo placed an ad on Gumtree - and kickstarted a series of interesting encounters
Male student sues Columbia University for 'gender-based harassment' after alleged 'Mattress Performance' rape victim Emma Sulkowicz went public with claims
MasterChef 2015: Simon Wood named winner
Black Mass trailer: Johnny Depp might have started making good films again
The sickening truth about food banks that the Tories don't want you to know
Katie Hopkins on LBC: Listen to caller taking The Sun columnist to task over migrant comments
Migrant boat disaster: Ukip candidate mocks victims in sickening Twitter post
Nigel Farage wants the BBC to stop making programmes like Doctor Who, Strictly Come Dancing, and Top Gear
Global warming: Scientists say temperatures could rise by 6C by 2100 and call for action ahead of UN meeting in Paris
Rupert Murdoch berated Sun journalists for not doing enough to attack Ed Miliband and stop him winning the general election