Archive for ukiyo-e

A Whistler Caprice at the Freer

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , , , on February 1, 2009 by Liz Hager

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James McNeil Whistler, Caprice in Purple & Gold: The Golden Screen, 1864, oil on panel. (Freer Gallery, Washington DC, photo ©Liz Hager)

For those with art on their minds, one of Washington’s most welcomed amenities is its many free museums.  And yet, despite the crowds in town for the Inauguration, the Freer Gallery was inexplicably empty during the morning after the big event.  Could everyone have bolted for home so quickly? Whatever the reason, it was a lucky break for this visitor, who had rooms of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Islamic and American art mostly to herself.  

The gallery was founded by Charles Lang Freer, a railroad-car manufacturer from Detroit, who gave to the people of the United States his collections, as well as the funds for a building to house them.  When the gallery opened to the public in 1923, it was the first Smithsonian museum for fine arts. 

The museum houses a sturdy collection of unique Islamic ceramics and Buddhist sculptures from India and China. In addition, the Cizhou ware from the Song Dynasty period is absolutely exquisite. (Chinese ceramicists perfected the use of a deep black glaze that looks stunning on the pristine white-fired clay.) But the Freer is perhaps best known today for is its ample collection of Whistlers; at nearly 1300 pieces, it must be the most extensive in the world. Further, on permanent display at the Freer is what must surely be Whistler’s most opulent and controversial work—“Peacock Room.”  Originally commissioned  by shipping magnate Frederick R. Leyland as his London dining room, the entire room was acquired by Freer in 1904 and installed in the Gallery after his death in 1919. (You cannot imagine how luscious that deep turquoise is.)

The juxtaposition of Asian and American art at the Freer is due largely to James McNeil Whistler (1834–1903). Freer began collecting art in the 1880s. He met Whistler in 1890 in London, and Whistler actually persuaded him to collect Asian art.  By the time they met, the influence of Japanese prints and Chinese ceramics was well-established in the artist’s work. Thus, many of the works here carry the telltale signs of Asian influences, either through inclusion of accessories from Whistler’s own extensive collection of Asian art or as compositional principles gleaned from the Ukiyo-e prints. By the late 1860s Japanese prints were well known in London, although by that time Whistler had already amassed a significant array of imported Japanese textiles, fans, lacquer, screens, and woodblock prints, all purchased from a Paris shop on the Rue de Rivoli.  

In Caprice in Purple and Gold, Whistler’s mistress, Jo Hifferman is seen surrounded by exotic and expensive things, all arranged artfully to show off their (and her) beauty.  It is even possible to recognize prints from Utagawa Hiroshige’s woodcut series Sixty-Odd Famous Places of Japan.

Whistler began to design the frames for his pictures around 1865, and he was influenced in this endeavor in part by his Chelsea neighbor, Dante Gabriel Rossetti.  Some saw this as part of his eccentricity; others applauded him for retaining total artistic control. The frame here is of Whistler’s own design; it displays Japanese kimono motifs along its rails and stiles. In its corners are paulownia (princesstree) leaves.

After 1870 Whistler abandoned his ladies in kimonos. However, the  stylistic influences on these earlier experiments did not disappear; they became more thoroughly assimilated into his major preoccupation of this decade—the Nocturnes

Wider Connections

Freer House Detroit

Freer & Whistler

Whistler’s portrait of Freer

More on the Peacock Room

An Illicit Affair in Paris: Utamaro at the Bibliothèque National

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Printmaking with tags , , , , , , , , on January 8, 2009 by Liz Hager

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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