Women of the Drowning World in Woodblock Prints.

Kunichika, The Hag of Adachi Moor
Kunichika, The Hag of Adachi Moor. 1893

There are no pin-ups in nineteenth century Japanese prints. There aren’t any Odalisques, or Venuses departing the waves, (water cascading off cold, pert nipples); there aren’t any Susanna and the Elders or naked Graces or bare bodies being judged by Paris. There is an absence of startled and attractive women whose clothes have surprisingly – given that they were meant to be dressed for hunting – fallen off. In fact the only women in Japanese woodblock prints of the nineteenth century who are naked are either having sexual intercourse, having a wash or else diving for abalone. Surprising then that when people imagine Japanese woodblock prints, they more often than not imagine sexualised women in obscene positions… the fact is that there are always an equal number of sexualised men in obscene positions in the same print.

Titian, Venus and Cupid
Titian, Venus and Cupid

We have just finished putting together a set of twenty-seven woodblock prints of women for the current exhibition at the Toshidama Gallery. Interestingly, with the exception of one shunga print by Utamaro (pictured below), there are no naked women, (in the Utamaro, the woman isn’t actually naked) and only a couple of prints where the woman could be said to be passive rather than active. This is not to say that Edo Japan was a paradise of equal opportunities for women… it was not; but the position of women in society and crucially how they were perceived was very different to modern Japan, to contemporary society in the west and to Japan at the end of the nineteenth century. This is largely due to the enforced ‘medievalism’ of feudal Japan whose social structure was closer to medieval or early modern Europe than any modern comparison. In the peasant economy, it has been argued, women are a necessary and equal part of the household and community and their contribution is valued equally to men. In her groundbreaking work of feminist writing, Working Life of Women in the Seventeeth Century (1919), Alice Clark observes that in early modern Europe, women ran businesses and managed estates routinely, tracing the rise in industrialisation to the devaluing of women’s position in society. Later interpretations of Christian ‘modesty’created a taboo around the female body that persists to this day.

Utamaro, Love Songs From The Thick Necked Shamisen. 1802
Utamaro, Love Songs From The Thick Necked Shamisen, 1802

The central theme of early Japanese prints of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries  was undoubtedly decorative women. Utamaro, Moronobu and Kyonga all made prints which depicted prostitutes, beauties, clothes and hair as the principal subject matter. These prints of elegant, well known and compliant beauties were consumed by men and women alike albeit for different reasons. By the mid nineteenth century though, depictions of women had changed dramatically. The art of the the three great nineteenth century artists, Kuniyoshi, Kunisada and Hiroshige was quite different. They were mainly involved in quite different genres of landscape, history and theatre… women, when they were depicted were in very different roles than their languid predecessors. Some commentators ascribe this change in depictions of women to the famous Tenpo reforms of 1842 that proscribed the depiction of:

erotic books, likenesses of Kabuki actors, images of courtesans and female geisha, works on theatrical subjects and pictures in which dancing women and children took on the guise of adults…

Kuniyoshi, Hotoke Gozen,  1841
Kuniyoshi, Hotoke Gozen, from Stories of Wise Women and Faithful Wives, 1841

This clearly had a big impact on what artists could produce and led to real hardship for publishers, artists and the entire industry, especially in Osaka. Yet in the decades before the infamous reforms, artists were already depicting women very differently. From just before the reforms, in 1841, Kuniyoshi was making a print series entitled Stories of Wise Women and Faithful Wives.   This series picked figures from history who were exemplars of honesty or bravery and illustrated them in a dignified and respectful way: they are clothed and the scenes illustrate the deeds for which they are famed. Looking at the titles of Kuniyoshi’s earlier series on female subjects, well before the legal enforcements, the themes are less ‘modest’… as in Untitled Series of Beauties with Framed Insets, from 1824 but the style and the essentials of the depiction are more or less the same. Kuniyoshi both before and after 1842 consistently shows ordinary women, fully clothed and engaged in an activity of some sort. More often than not, this activity is domestic or else the figure is acting in a virtuous or wise way. There simply aren’t that many depictions of women that could be classified as demeaning.

After 1842, the trend is definitely even more respectful, as in Biographies of Wise Women and Virtuous Wives, from 1842. We are showing the terrific portrait of Hangaku-jo from that series (below), a female warrior of the twelfth century who raised an army in defence of the Shogunate. Kuniyoshi’s depiction of her though is very different from western images of historic women… her clothes are very firmly still on for a start! and no great effort has been made to emphasise her sexuality or indeed her gender.

Kuniyoshi, Hangaku-jo, Virtuous Wives. 1842
Kuniyoshi, Hangaku-jo from Biographies of Wise Women and Virtuous Wives, 1842

Strangely to our eyes, gender roles remain very fluid in Edo culture. It is easy to mix up the usual depictions of the great Japanese samurai and general Yoshitsune,  with a female warrior such as Hangaku-jo or a female bandit like Kijin no Omatsu. Edo Japan was obsessed with kabuki drama; previous laws had forever banned female actors and further gender fluidity marks the depiction of women in the work of theatrical artists such as the famous Kunisada. Kabuki theatre chose its subjects from contemporary life and from history. It was a theatre of melodrama and effect and so its subjects were always notable characters. Male actors were able to make careers as female impersonators – onnagata – and woodblock artists made their careers depicting these actors in roles of dramatic ferocity as warriors or bandits or heroines. It was important that the depiction gave away something of both the female role and also the actual features and ‘character’ of the actor himself – no mean feat. A consequence of these different factors; moral reform, female impersonators in the theatre and the significant admiration by outstanding media personalities, especially Kuniyoshi, of strong women led to an inspiring redefinition of women in the visual arts.

Kunisada, The Bandit Omatsu. 1851
Kunisada, The Bandit Omatsu, 1851

A handy way of catching up on these trends is visiting the outstanding website Kuniyoshi Project,  women page; equally interesting is Horst Graebner’s site on Kunisada which also has a page devoted to women in Kunisada’s print series. There is no doubt that Kunisada was more conservative… more chauvinist if you like, than his colleague, but you will search in vain for a demeaning or unclothed or even titillating picture of a female in his entire, very large output of prints. This includes the numerous print series devoted to famous prostitutes who, whilst there are clues to their profession, the slightly gruesome wad of tissues often held in the teeth or hands, could often pass for the most demure of Edwardian ladies.

Kunisada, Famous Places Along the Tokaido, 1863

It is hard really to account for this very sudden change of depiction that occurred in the first and second decades of the nineteenth century. Elsewhere I have reserved a new phrase ‘dekiyo-e’ – pictures of the drowning world to distinguish this populist shift from the decorousness of the ukiyo-e – the floating world. In the end, as with all social and cultural change… it’s economics. The gradual urbanisation of a peasant economy effectively created a ‘pop’ culture in the burgeoning towns, roles necessarily changed, people were crammed together, disaffected, restive. For women, life in actuality meant semi-abusive relationships where they were traded as commodities or forced into work as prostitutes or servants. The art of the period… almost exclusively popular, was in the theatre and the woodblock prints and in these efforts people sought out exemplars of how life might be or else looked for ennobling distractions from the daily grind. They created heroines from the examples they could find in history or else looked to the ordinary miracles of daily life. I’ve tried elsewhere to show the direct link between this optimistic realism and the development of realism, impressionism, modernism and the western modern scene.

Kunisada, Yokkaichi  Tokaido. 1845
Kunisada, Yokkaichi from the 53 Parallels for the Tokaido, 1845

There are plenty of these examples in the Toshidama Gallery show, Women of the Drowning World. Here is Hotoke Gozen, leaving her moving poem written on a paper screen, the very image of the discarded mistress; or the satisfying picture of a working woman gazing at the miraculous mirage of Nago Bay from a series notable in its depiction of female subjects and their resistance to previous and submissive evocations of male gaze or desire (above). Here also is the elegant Lady Fuji no Tsubone appearing to her husband, Taira no Tsunemori, a powerful figure in seventeenth century Japan. She is something of a modern role model and heroine inside and outside of Japan, appearing in movies and television series such such as Basilisk, a 2005 anime and manga. Elsewhere there are two prints of the female bandit Kijin no Omatsu, an historical figure: a woman outcast who used her beauty to escape her origins. Perhaps not so palatable is the terrifying rendition of the actor Baiko as Onibaba, the hag of Adachi Moor… a female serial killer in the Hollywood tradition.

Kuniyoshi, Feast of the Taira. 1845
Kuniyoshi, Feast of the Taira Before Going to War, 1845

There is much in this show of pictures of women that is thought provoking and startling, what there is not are pictures of women in bikinis, or females needing to demean themselves in order to gain our attention… a current theme indeed!

About toshidama

Toshidama Gallery sells original nineteenth century Japanese woodblock prints. We source our prints from around the world and only stock original, authenticated works of museum quality.
This entry was posted in Bijin, Japanese prints, japanese woodblock prints, Kunichika, Kunisada, Kuniyoshi, ukiyo-e and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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