Set sometime in the late 19th century, a woman in a colorful kimono gazes contemplatively out into the hazy distance. She stands with hips jutted out and hair pulled back into a loose bun, and I wonder, who is she? Why is she alone? Like most of the painted bijin-ga—a term that generalizes beautiful women—of the Miji period, we will likely never know much more about her or other East Asian women beyond their painted depictions.
The truth behind her stoic gaze will go unanswered, which is ironic and almost sad, since these women were revered by poets, writers, and artists alike over several centuries. They served as the muse for hundreds of paintings and portraits and yet—who are they? Depending on the century, they were portrayed as “classic” representations of women, anywhere from slender and lanky to petite and curvy. Their faces unrecognizable from the next, bodies bent over needlework or a musical instrument. The truth is, these female beauties were a major aspect of the Japanese genre of Ukiyo-e[i], but their superficial preservation reveals how little history and its male artists cared about them outside of their romanticized representation.
Honolulu Museum of Art’s “Ogata Gekkō: Portraits of Women at the End of the 19th Century” explores this defining aspect of the Meji period, presenting a series of prints which delve into the fashion, domestic life, and gender roles as they were shaped by Japanese culture and ideals.
Ogata Gekkō (originally known as Nakagami Masanosuke) was a self-trained artist who was orphaned at a young age and survived by illustrating brochures, selling drawings, and designing rickshaws. While the likes of Kitagawa Utamaro, Hishikawa Moronobu, Keisei Eisen, and Suzuki Harunobu were regarded as the innovators and masters of the bijin-ga form, Gekkō was one of the first Japanese woodblock print designers to achieve international recognition during his lifetime.[ii] More impressively, he quickly gained attention by garnering numerous national and international prizes for his work.[iii]
His unconventional style—thought to have been influenced by his lack of formal training—blends the illusion of brushstrokes and perspective with the sharp contours and line-work normally associated with ukiyo-e composition. In his triptychs Bijin Meisho Awase (Beautiful Women in Famous Places), these women are portrayed in a delicate, feminine light, so unlike his naval and landscape series marked by bold, masculine colors and thick, sweeping lines. A visionary in some ways, Gekkō conforms in others by perpetuating the traditional notions of masculinity and femininity. Men depicted as turbulent, complex, and active creatures while women are cast in an over-simplified light, whether they are passively observing their surroundings or subscribed to societal norms. Subdued and sensual, these woodblock prints give us the impression there is much more to be said about the life and thoughts of his two-dimensional subjects.
Gekkō’s work has been displayed in far-reaching cities, including London, Paris, Chicago and now, Hawaii in the Honolulu Museum of Art from October 1 to November 29th. Explore the rich history and iconic Japanese art form in Edmond De Goncourt’s Japanese Woodblock Prints: The Floating World or download the life of the bold formalist Hokusai, one of Gekkō’s greatest inspirations for his artistic style.
[i] Ukiyo-e is a Japanese genre of art in the 17th-19th centuries; it featured woodblock prints and paintings depicting beautiful women; kabuki actors and sumo wrestlers; scenes of landscape, history, folktales, and erotica.