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

Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
The American stand-up Tig Notaro, who performed topless this week

Comedy...to show her mastectomy scars

Arts and Entertainment

TVNetflix gets cryptic

Arts and Entertainment
Claudia Winkleman is having another week off Strictly to care for her daughter
TV
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Children in Need is the BBC's UK charity. Since 1980 it has raised over £600 million to change the lives of disabled children and young people in the UK

TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his winning novel

Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination

Arts and Entertainment
Bryan Cranston will play federal agent Robert Mazur in The Infiltrator

Books
Arts and Entertainment
Nicki Minaj's lyric video for 'Only' features Drake as the Pope, Minaj as a dictator and Chris Brown as an army leader

music 'It was inspired by Cartoon Network'

Arts and Entertainment
James Nesbit in The Missing on BBC 1

TV review

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Synagogue attack: Fear unites both sides of Jerusalem as minister warns restoring quiet could take 'months'

    Terror unites Jerusalem after synagogue attack

    Rising violence and increased police patrols have left residents of all faiths looking over their shoulders
    Medecins sans Frontieres: The Ebola crisis has them in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa

    'How do you carry on? You have to...'

    The Ebola crisis has Medecins sans Frontieres in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa
    Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

    Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

    Residents in what was Iraq’s safest city fear an increase in jihadist attacks, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Underwater photography competition winners 2014 - in pictures

    'Mysterious and inviting' shot of diver wins photography competition

    Stunning image of cenote in Mexico takes top prize
    Sir John Major: Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting

    Sir John Major hits out at theatres

    Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting
    Kicking Barbie's butt: How the growth of 3D printing enabled me to make an army of custom-made figurines

    Kicking Barbie's butt

    How the growth of 3D printing enabled toy-designer to make an army of custom-made figurines
    Will Smith's children have made waves with a gloriously over-the-top interview, but will their music match their musings?

    What are Jaden and Willow on about?

    Will Smith's children have made waves with a gloriously over-the-top interview, but will their music match their musings?
    Fridge gate: How George Osborne keeping his fridge padlocked shows a frosty side to shared spaces

    Cold war

    How George Osborne keeping his fridge padlocked shows a frosty side to shared spaces
    Stocking fillers: 10 best loo books

    Stocking fillers: 10 best loo books

    From dogs in cars to online etiquette, while away a few minutes in peace with one of these humorous, original and occasionally educational tomes
    Malky Mackay appointed Wigan manager: Three texts keep Scot’s rehabilitation on a knife-edge

    Three texts keep Mackay’s rehabilitation on a knife-edge

    New Wigan manager said all the right things - but until the FA’s verdict is delivered he is still on probation, says Ian Herbert
    Louis van Gaal: the liberal, the enemy and... err, the poet

    Louis van Gaal: the liberal, the enemy and... err, the poet

    ‘O, Louis’ is the plaintive title of a biography about the Dutchman. Ian Herbert looks at what it tells us about the Manchester United manager
    Isis in Iraq: Baghdad hails the retaking of the Baiji oil refinery as the start of the long fightback against the Islamist militants

    Isis takes a big step back

    Baghdad hails the retaking of the Baiji oil refinery as the start of the long fightback against the Islamist militants
    Bill Cosby: America’s beloved TV ‘dad’ or serial rapist?

    Bill Cosby: America’s beloved TV ‘dad’ or serial rapist?

    Ukip silk bow ties, Green Party T-shirts, and 'Iron Baby' romper suits: How to shop politically

    How to shop politically

    Ukip silk bow ties, Green Party T-shirts, and 'Iron Baby' romper suits
    The science of sex: What happens when science meets erotica

    Sex on the brain

    Fetishes, dominatrixes, kinks and erotica. They are subjects that should get the crowds flocking to a new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection