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Immoral Art: How Kitagawa Utamaro became famous for depicting geishas and offended the Japanese government in one engraving

Kitagawa Utamaro is an iconic Japanese artist whose engravings are world famous. He devoted his life to portraying the inhabitants of the “merry quarters” – geishas and the maids of tea houses, and he worked, despite the prohibitions. His name meant “the river of abundant happiness,” but the artist’s life was not happy.

During the Edo period, during the reign of the Tokugawa clan – around the 17th century – an art movement appeared that became the hallmark of Japanese art in the eyes of the entire Western world.

The term itself originally meant “mortal world” or “vale of sorrow”, but the engravings of ukiyo-e are not at all sad. At that time, life in Tokyo was in full swing: those city blocks were rebuilt where the Kabuki theater flourished and the houses of geishas and courtesans were located. The first ukiyo-e artists portrayed the diverse inhabitants of these “fun neighborhoods” – beautiful geisha, stern sumo wrestlers, Kabuki theater actors with their masks and costumes, and therefore the word itself changed its meaning and began to mean “a world full of love.”

Ukiyo-e engravings are dedicated to the life of the inhabitants of the “fun neighborhoods”

The greatest Western artists drew inspiration in this “frivolous” direction of Japanese art. Van Gogh collected prints of ukiyo-e prints, Whistler (an English impressionist) was fascinated by them and dressed his models in kimonos … And most of these prints were created by one person. His name was Kitagawa Utamaro, and most of all in his life he loved art and women.

Geisha Utamaro inspired the great artists of Europe.

It is still not known exactly where and when he was born, no one knows who his parents were. And the surname that he received at birth was forgotten. For the western ear, it sounded exactly the same – Kitagawa, but was written in hieroglyphs, meaning simply “northern river”. Utamaro himself (this is one of many of his pseudonyms) preferred to write his last name with hieroglyphs meaning “river of abundant happiness.”

Utamaro was a versatile artist.

He was seriously interested in poetry, wrote haiku and ironic poems of kyoku, painted the actors of the Kabuki theater, but became famous for the images of beauties – this genre is called bidzing. However, the passion for literature was not in vain – for his publisher he completed many illustrations with images of plants, birds and insects.

Utamaro performed many illustrations with images of plants and insects.

These works are subtle, elegant and very detailed, the artist’s gaze is fixed and attentive, every detail matters.

Utamaro portrayed not only girls, but also the natural world.

The cycle “The Book of Insects” was unusual in its own way – earlier masters of engraving did not address the life of such tiny creatures.

Previously, engravers did not address the life of insects.

Here Utamaro introduces another small innovation – it moves away from the black contour, which made the image as realistic as possible.

Utamaro introduced an innovation – a color outline.

“This is a real painting of the heart,” wrote his teacher about the Book of Insects.

Utamaro never idealized women, despite the tenderness and nobility of the images depicted by him. He was interested in real situations and genuine feelings.

Exploring female emotions, he often painted chest portraits or only faces, although, of course, he was skillfully able to portray the exquisite poses of geishas while dressing or drinking tea.

Utamaro often abandoned complex backgrounds to focus entirely on the model. Who were those gentle girls combing their hair in front of mirrors or reading letters on his engravings? Not at all noble ladies – geisha, prostitutes, maids … Engravings of Utamaro began to be considered an advertisement for dubious establishments.

The viewer feels as though spying on the heroines of Utamaro.

He almost never portrayed the sufferings of women, the cruelty of their clients, difficult everyday lives, although, of course, he was their witness (he lived, most likely, in one of the licensed brothels).

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