ARTS: EXHIBITIONS: In the realm of the senses

Pornographer or meticulous recorder of 18th-century Japanese social hierarchies? Erotic print-maker Utamaro was both
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THE British Museum's latest exhibition is called "The Passionate Art of Utamaro", but I'm not so sure that this exceptional Japanese really displays much passion - at least not compared to the sometimes violent emotions of modern Western art. Utamaro is cool, meticulous. Both his social attitudes and his technique are highly refined. His art is never about himself. At the end of this large show one is most of all impressed by sophistication - even though many of the erotic prints succeed through grotesquerie.

We do not know the date of Kitagawa Utamaro's birth, but it is certain that his artistic career began in the 1770s. During the later part of the decade he was occupied by standard Japanese print-making, producing theatrical illustrations and covers for comic novels. By 1781, however, his work was far more rarefied and expensive. This was because he responded to a series of publishing ventures. Utamaro was taken up by Tsutaya Jusaburo, a young and evidently ambitious entrepreneur, well connected with poets and the people who might buy his lavish anthologies of current poetry.

Utamaro was to illustrate such albums. Perhaps the most remarkable of them is The Insect Book. The theme of this anthology is that a number of poets go into the countryside and make comparisons between various insects and the women they love. I can't read the verses, but this project seems to me like the worst poetic drivel, even more fatuous than contemporary English Romanticism. But Utamaro's pictures are lovely. Japanese art in general combines the traditions of still-life and landscape that in European art are kept distinct. The Insect Book is like this, with the addition that it exemplifies Japanese botanical illustration.

Lacking still-life, Japanese art went in for clothes. Utamaro is above all else a master of raiment. In his prints, things that women wear are more interesting than their limbs. Clothes fascinate not only by their patterns but because they have graceful, swooping and gliding lines. Women's hairstyles, invariably elaborate, are also more interesting than their faces. Utamaro was not a portraitist. Experts in Japanese art can read his signs. They see differences in class, different types of female beauty, variations in courtesanship, etc. We can't, even with the assistance of Shugo Asano and Timothy Clark's elaborate catalogue/book (BM Press, 2 vols, pounds 55 at the exhibition). What we do notice is that there are no nudes. One does indeed see penises, pubic hair, the glimpse of a breast. None the less Utamaro's pornography is essentially clothed.

That he was a pornographer there is no doubt. It provided Utamaro with his living. But his erotic art is not calculated to arouse sexual feelings. Civilisation had to await the invention of photography before the erotic form became thus specialised, and then it immediately ceased to be art. Utamaro was a social pornographer. For all that his work depicts copulation, its real subject is status within the hierarchies of 18th-century Japanese life: more specifically, Utamaro was inspired by the arrangements in superior brothels in Edo (now Tokyo) and the protected brothel area of Yoshiwara - both the hunting ground and commercial outlet of his publisher Jusaburo.

Yoshiwara life got them both into trouble. Originally, the district was surrounded by walls, was government-licensed and contained some 3,000 women, apparently arranged in various elites. The top courtesans were owned, purchased or wooed with elaborate ceremonial. We can imagine what happened to those who were at the bottom of this heap. Utamaro hints at the lives of the unfortunates but his best series, Utamakura (Poem of the Pillow) and then Negai no ito-guchi and Komachi-biki are mainly concerned with the women who belonged to the samurai class, or to a rich, leisured Edo aristocracy that included fashionable poets and other prominent people around town.

Yoshiwara went into decline in the later years of Utamaro's career, mostly because of a series of regulations introduced by the conservative governments of the 1790s. The "Kansei Reforms" used censorship as one of their tools in cleaning up high society. Jusaburo had his assets seized. Utamaro was briefly imprisoned, then put under house arrest and spent 50 days in handcuffs. Apparently this indignity was the beginning of his decline as an artist. It does look as though his excellencies depend on the voyeurism of a system that had had its day. Superb craftsman though he was, this dependence on other people's pleasures stopped Utamaro from being a great artist. I wish he'd done more landscape, but suppose that nature would not have provided him with the same money.

! 'Utamaro': British Museum, WC1 (0171 323 8525) to 22 Oct.