Myth-Maker of the Brothel

Freer|Sackler, Smithsonian/Charles Lang Freer

Utamaro: Moon at Shinagawa (detail), 1788–1790

Of all the masters of the woodblock print in the Edo Period, Utamaro has the most colorful reputation. Hokusai was perhaps the greatest draughtsman, Hiroshige excelled in landscapes, and Kuniyoshi had the wildest theatrical flair. Utamaro (1753–1806) was the lover of women.

Not only did he create extraordinary prints and paintings of female beauties, often high-class prostitutes, but he was also, it was said, a great habitué of the brothels in Edo himself. Prostitutes, even at the top end of the market, no longer have any of the glamor associated with their trade in eighteenth-century Japan, but “Utamaro” is the name of a large number of massage parlors that still dot the areas where famous pleasure districts once used to be. Even in Utamaro’s time, the glamor of prostitutes was largely a fantasy promoted in guidebooks and prints. He made a living providing pictures of the “floating world” of commercial sex, commissioned by publishers who were paid by the brothel owners.

Three remarkable paintings by Utamaro set in different red light districts in Edo are the main attraction of “Inventing Utamaro: A Japanese Masterpiece Rediscovered,” a fascinating exhibition at the Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C. The last time all three were seen together was in the late 1880s in Paris. The Japanese dealer Hayashi Tadamasa kept the earliest (between 1780 and 1790) and best one for himself. It is called Moon at Shinagawa (1788–1790), and shows an elegant teahouse with a view of the sea. A number of finely dressed “courtesans” are seen playing musical instruments, reading poems, and bringing out dainty dishes. This painting was acquired by Charles Lang Freer in 1903 and is now part of the Freer/Sackler collection.

Freer|Sackler, Smithsonian/Wadsworth Atheneum

Utamaro: Cherry Blossoms in Yoshiwara,1792–1794; click to enlarge

Cherry Blossoms in Yoshiwara (1792–1794), a gaudier picture of women singing and dancing in a typical teahouse/brothel with cherry blossom trees in full bloom outside, was sold to the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, in the 1950s. But the whereabouts of the third picture was a mystery until it suddenly turned up at the Okada Museum of Art in Hakone, Japan, in 2014. Snow at Fukagawa (1802–1806), a little clumsily touched up recently by a Chinese restorer, again shows a tableau of women engaged in various activities—playing the three-stringed samisen, carrying bedding, drinking—associated with a house of pleasure.

In all three pictures, there is an almost total absence of men. These are women on display for the eyes of men, no doubt, advertisements for the sexual trade that played such an important part in the merchant culture of the Edo Period (1603–1868). Politically oppressive, the authorities nonetheless gave license to men to indulge themselves in amusements of varying degrees of sophistication acted out in a narrow and interconnected world of brothels and Kabuki theaters. Sex, kept in bounds by rules of social etiquette, was less threatening to the authorities than political activity. (Utamaro was arrested once, not for his pornographic prints, but for depicting samurai grandees, which was forbidden.) And the roles played by the women in this world, especially the high-class ones, were hardly less stylized and artificial than those performed at the Kabuki.

Utamaro’s personal reputation as a ladies’ man may be as imaginary as the sexual games acted out in the brothels. Very little is known about his life. It is known that he trained as an apprentice to an artist named Toriyama Sekien, who switched from the austere art of the Kano School to making prints of ogres and other fantastical figures in illustrated books.

Freer|Sackler, Smithsonian/Okada Museum of Art, Hakone

Utamaro: Snow at Fukagawa, 1802–1806; click to enlarge

The legend of Utamaro as a demon of art, as well as an erotic connoisseur, began early on, but was later burnished in a movie by the great director Mizoguchi Kenji, entitled Utamaro and His Five Women (1946), which was based on a novel of the same title. The portrayal of the artist probably owes more to the way Mizoguchi saw himself than to historical accuracy.

The exotic image of traditional Japan as a kind of paradise of sexual refinement, which was already the product of a fantasy world promoted by artists like Utamaro, appealed to sophisticated collectors, writers, and artists in late-nineteenth-century Paris. The pleasure world of the Edo Period was seen as an elegant and sensuous antidote to the ugliness of the industrial age. And the same was true in Japan.

At first, in the last decades of the nineteenth century, when the Japanese were eager to modernize along Western lines, the hedonism of Floating World prints, and the wilder shores of Kabuki, were considered rather shameful. Soon, however, the popular theatrical genres and sensual entertainments of the past calcified in the culture of geisha and in classical Japanese theater, shorn of its wild inventiveness. But the art of Utamaro still retains the old spirit, which now evokes feelings of nostalgia.


Freer|Sackler, Smithsonian/Charles Lang Freer

Utamaro: Moon at Shinagawa, 1788–1790; click to enlarge

The three paintings at the Sackler are unsigned and their provenance is cloudy. They may not be entirely the work of Utamaro. Some experts even claim that one or two of them are not by Utamaro at all. Another mystery lies in their odd sizes, much too big to be hung in a traditional Japanese alcove, or even on the walls of a Japanese house. Yet the subject matter would seem rather unsuitable for display in a temple. Many a fake Utamaro was made for the Western market, hungry for Japanese exotica. But these pictures seem too fine for that.

There are other items in the Sackler show that are well worth studying, especially a number of beautiful prints and illustrated books by Utamaro and others. At the very end of the exhibition there is a large color photograph of a brothel in Tokyo, probably taken at the end of the nineteenth century. We see several rows of what look like very young girls waiting behind wooden bars to be selected by clients passing by. They were virtually enslaved by their employers. Most died of disease in their twenties. It is a reminder that the highest artistic achievements sometimes emerge from the most squalid circumstances.

Honolulu Museum of Art, Gift of James H. Soong, 2012

Kusakabe Kimber: Yoshiwara Girls, 1890s

“Inventing Utamaro: A Japanese Masterpiece Rediscovered” is at the Sackler Gallery through July 9.

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