An Illicit Affair in Paris: Utamaro at the Bibliothèque National

Guest contributor Gina Collia-Suzuki reports from Paris on one of Utamaro’s most famous prints. It’s just one of hundreds by many Japanese printmakers on view as part of the exhibit Estampes Japonaises: Images d’un Monde Éphémère at the Bibliothèque National de France until February 15, 2009.  


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Kitagawa Utamaro, Kamiya Jihei and Kinokuniya Koharu, from the series Jitsu kurabe iro no minakami (An Array of Passionate Lovers) , published by  Nishimuraya, c. 1798-9 (© Bibliothèque National de France)

The Estampes Japonaises: Images d’un Monde Éphémère focuses on ukiyo-e (“floating world”) genre of prints, so named for their depiction of the scenes of everyday life in Japan and the impact of the rising merchant class on Japanese society.  These woodcuts were generally produced during the Edo (1603-1867) and later Meiji (1867-1912) periods. Beginning in the 1870s the Western world was introduced to these prints, and artists, most notably the French Impressionists, began to incorporate their distinctive stylistic characteristics into their own paintings.  

Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806) produced a number of sets of prints depicting ill-fated lovers, shown in both half-length and full-length, as well as in different poses. None surpasses the monumental series bearing the title Jitsu kurabe iro no minakami (An Array of Passionate Lovers), which is comprised of 21 known designs.

The most well-known print in this set portrays two lovers, Kamiya Jihei and Kinokuniya Koharu.  Created during the Edo period, it is often referred to as La Sortie (The Departure), because it depicts the michiyukispecifically, the moment in the lovers’ journey when they are preparing to leave and make their way to Daichô-ji Temple, where they will end their lives together. Under cover of night (as suggested by the gray background) Jihei is shown raising the walls of the collapsed paper lantern he holds. His white head covering disguises his appearance, and provides a masculine contrast to the black veil of his lover Koharu. She stands protectively over his shoulder, tenderly shielding the candle from the wind. Utamaro depicts the two in this pose of intimate communion, foreshadowing their fate.  The restricted color scheme also emphasizes the union of the two lovers. 

The dramatizations of the story of Koharu and her lover Jihei were based on real-life events which took place in 1720, when Kamiya Jihei—a 28-year-old married paper merchant with two children, from the Temman district of Osaka—and Koharu—a 19-year-old prostitute belonging to the Kinokuniya brothel—committed suicide together at the Daichô-ji Temple in Amijima. The story was adapted for both the puppet and Kabuki theatre, with the most famous version being Shinjû ten no Amijima (Double Suicide at Amijima), written by the well-renowned playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1725) for the Bunraku theatre and staged for the first time in Osaka in the December of 1720. 

In 18th-century Japan marriage was primarily a convenience. Taking a wife was more akin to engaging a housekeeper and nursemaid than choosing a lover and lifetime companion. Tales in which passionate romantic love endured against all odds were incredibly popular among the Edo townspeople, because they offered a glimpse of an intense and intimate relationship that many ordinary Japanese men and women could not hope to experience.

These tales of scandalously illicit affairs, double suicides, and passionate encounters between lovers, who risked all to be together, thoroughly captured the imagination of Edo’s inhabitants. Dramatic tales of ill-fated lovers, which invariably ended badly, were popular in literature, in prints, in songs, and on the stage. The couples portrayed in these tales represented the ideal of romantic love and unwavering devotion.

The exhibit includes many other Japanese printmakers from the , including examples from perhaps the best-known, Hokusai and Hiroshige.

Below left—Suzuki Harunobu, Beauty Sailing into the Void from the Balcony of the Kiyomizu Temple, 1765, calendar print; Below right—Kitagawa Utamaro, Furtive Glance, 1799-1800, woodcut (all (© Bibliothèque National de France).

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Below—Katsushika Hokusai, Great Wave Off Kanagawa, from the series Thirty-Siz Views of Mt. Fuji, 1829-1833, woodcut; Bottom—Ando Hiroshige, Big Fish and Abalones, 1832, woodcut  (all © Bibliothèque National de France).

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About Venetian Red guest contributor

Gina Collia-Suzuki is a writer and editor, who lives on the southwest coast of England. While a student at Birmingham Institute of Art & Design, she began collecting the woodblock prints of Kitagawa Utamaro. Since then she has devoted herself to the study of the artist’s work, focusing specifically on his illustrated books and broadsheets. She is the author of Utamaro Revealed: A Guide to Subjects, Themes, and Motifs and The Wonderful Demise of Benjamin Arnold Guppy. Collia-Suzuki’s blog can be found at Floating Along.

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