I recently visited the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, CT. I was surprised to find that they had finally decided to exhibit their 1000-object collection of Japanese art, in a special exhibition entitled "Utamaro and the Lure of Japan." I was even more surprised to see two wall-sized scrolls hanging across from each other, each more graphic and vivid than any other ancient scroll I had ever seen.
While both paintings have long and fascinating histories, all I really wanted was to sit myself down before one and stare at it intently.
What draws me to both these paintings is their graphic quality. Somehow, they are overwhelmingly contemporary, as if first drafted in Adobe Illustrator before being painted in gouache on bamboo paper. The angle at which the second floor of the teahouse leans toward the viewer, and the shape and colour of the geisha's obi , and the sheer number of figures (there are more than 40 women in the painting), all come together to create an image that I didn't want to peel my eyes away for a second.
The two paintings are by Kitagawa Utamaro, one of Japan's most prominent ukiyo-e artists. Like most other ukiyo-e artists, Utamaro was mainly a woodblock printer, but was likely commissioned these three large scroll paintings, largely regarded as his most ambitious works.
Ukiyo-e literally means "images of the floating world," pictures depicting ephemeral everyday life, especially the pleasures of love and entertainment. Supposedly, it is derived from zen Buddhism, and somehow got distorted to depicting the worldly pleasures of Edo period Japan. None of the three paintings features a single male figure, creating a fantasy world fabricated for male viewers. Nearly 50 female courtesans wait for their clients in the tea houses and theatres of Tokyo's licensed pleasure districts.
"Cherry Blossoms" depicts women of all classes and ages celebrating the annual spring cherry blossom festival. Poems written on slips of paper decorate the trees, while vibrant red lanterns illuminate the scene. By using an elevated perspective, Utamaro gives us a full view of the first and second floors of the house simultaneously. I love that, unlike in many Western images of the same time period, there is little effort to create a "realistic" image. Instead, it is an idealized version of a real place, filled with imaginary women, all depicted highly-stylized and in vibrant colors.
The exhibition also has a small activity area, for kids to make their own ukiyo-e compositions, play 五目並べ (basically connect five), and learn how block prints are made. I sat down and decided it was high time that I make myself some new artwork, and set to colouring and glueing, activities that I have not participated in since middle school.