November 11, 2010

The World of Edo Japan

Kitagawa Utamaro, Woman, Possibly Naniwaya Okita, Adjusting Her Coiffure in a Mirror, c. 1792-93; color woodcut with mica on mirror glass.; 14.6 x 9.6 inches.

In the winter of 2008, Asia Society mounted a generous and stunning exhibition titled "Designed for Pleasure: the World of Edo Japan in Prints and Paintings, 1680-1860. I remember walking around in a mood of buoyant excitement, as I saw one beautiful print or painting after another. The show focused on images of the world of pleasure––the "floating world" or ukiyo-e––in Edo, which became Tokyo.

I can understand the powerful impression that Japanese prints made on European artists of the 19th century; when I look at the Utamaro above, I see a design like nothing done in the West. The repeating curves, black moving sinuously from mirror to kimono to hair; the flat simple shapes that yet give an illusion of volume; the portrait pared down to basics; the gorgeous harmony of color. With our 21st century eyes, having seen decades of abstraction, this work is not a total revelation, but it is still compelling and enriching.

Katsukawa Shunsho, Peony, late 1770's; hanging scroll; ink and color on silk; 18.5 x 27 inches.

This painting struck me with the elegance and rhythm of its line, which flows around and about the figures, folds of figured cloth moving like music, the two entwined lovers having as much grace as the single peony.

Katsukawa Shunsho, Ichikawa Danjuro V in Kumadori Makeup Seen in a Mirror, late 1780s; hanging scroll;ink and color on silk; 31 x 4.7 inches.

There were many long narrow scrolls, a very difficult format to engage successfully. I find this extremely narrow painting just perfect in its balance of heavy dark form and empty space, the circle of mirror touching the edge, and its portrait reflection of red, black and white demanding the right amount of attention. What a nervy and dramatic image!

Suziki Harunobu, Courtesan of the Motoya and Client Disguised as an Itinerant Monk, 1770; color woodcut, 11.4 x 8.5 inches.

This print by an early master of color printing has a more delicate sensibility. The figures are part of a stage-like space, drawn in parallel perspective. The color is very beautiful, the reds and greens playing off against violet and gray. I have looked at these prints for color inspiration for some of my hooked rugs because they are simple and harmonious.

Many of the pigments used in these prints are of vegetable origin, such as safflower or red bud for red or pink, turmeric for yellow, indigo for blue. The cochineal insect yielded a red lake. They also used inorganic pigments such as white lead, or iron oxide.

Eishosai Choki, Catching Fireflies, c. 1794; color woodcut with mica ground; 15 x 9.75 inches.

Isn't it wonderful to realize that the activity we so enjoyed as a child, catching fireflies, was part of a child's life in the 18th century? This delightful image reminds me of the work of Charles Burchfield who often painted wondrous light.

Chokyosai Eiri, Flowers of Edo: The Master of Yanagibashi, c. 1795; color woodcut with mica ground; 14.4 x 9.8 inches.

I like this image for its drama of figure surrounded by dark, and that gorgeous yellow next to the purply red. This is a portrait of a chanter who is seen looking at a libretto and beating time with his fan. I love works such as these, so abstract in form, so balanced in structure.

I am very happy to have to catalog for this show, another of my favorites, from which I photographed the works for this post.


  1. just caught up on recent posts
    thank you for these images
    especially the slender, delicate, pudgy hands of the ukiyo-e
    and the comforting and unsettling sheila hicks

  2. I share your love of Japanese prints. Thank you for studying them and for commenting on them so sensitively. "Catching Fireflies" is so very lovely -- right up my alley. I like the idea of making a similar image myself.

  3. I'm back with a link to my own blogspot commentary on some Japanese prints. Follow this, please: