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Hanging the Moon

Pictures of the floating world land in museums around the country.

Kitagawa Utamaro Cherry Blossoms at Yoshiwara

Kitagawa Utamaro Cherry Blossoms at Yoshiwara, c. 1793, hanging scroll, ink, gouache, gold and gold‐leaf on bamboo paper.

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In 2014 the Okada Museum of Art in Hakone, Japan, revealed that a lost painting attributed to Kitagawa Utamaro had been found and was in the institution’s possession. On Friday, April 4 of that year, the painting, Fukagawa in the Snow (circa 1802–06), went on public view for the first time in 66 years.

It had last been seen in April 1948, when it was displayed at the second “Ukiyo-e Masterpieces” exhibition at the Matsuzakaya Ginza department store in Tokyo. The exhibition ran for only three days, and after its conclusion, the whereabouts of the painting became unknown.

For the art world at large, the rediscovery and exhibition of Fukagawa in the Snow was big news, but for two American museums, it meant a lot more. The painting is presumed to be a part of a triptych referred to as Snow, Moon and Flowers. The three paintings, which depict three different pleasure districts in Edo (now Tokyo), are thought to have been painted within a 14-year span, though none of them is dated—or, for that matter, signed. Moonlight Revelry at Dozo Sagami (circa 1788)—or, as it is also known, Moon at Shinagawa—was acquired in Paris in 1903 by Charles Lang Freer, the founder of what is now the Freer|Sackler, the Asian art branch of the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., and became a part of the collection he donated to the Smithsonian. Cherry Blossoms at Yoshiwara (circa 1793) was purchased in 1957 by Charles C. Cunningham, the former director of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn., for the museum’s growing Asian art collection. Neither institution has had the opportunity to show its paintings alongside the missing piece of the triptych.

Where Fukagawa in the Snow had been for nearly seven decades and how it was found remains a secret. That is to say, the Okada Museum of Art will not divulge how or from where the painting was recovered. Yet even though many aspects of Snow, Moon and Flowers are still mysterious, the public will finally be able to see the triptych together, in the same gallery. On April 8, “Inventing Utamaro: A Japanese Masterpiece Rediscovered” will open at the Freer|Sackler (the show will be held in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery while the Freer Gallery of Art is under renovation). The exhibition, which runs through July 9, puts all three paintings on view together for the first time in nearly 140 years. Currently, the Wadsworth is staging a smaller reunion between Fukugawa in the Snow and its own painting, Cherry Blossoms at Yoshiwara; that show, “Utamaro and the Lure of Japan,” opened in January and runs through March 26. The Freer|Sackler’s painting, Moonlight Revelry at Dozo Sagami will only be seen in D.C., due to a stipulation in Freer’s will that that no work in his collection ever be loaned. A facsimile of Moonlight Revelry at Dozo Sagami will appear at both the Wadsworth’s exhibition and at an exhibition at the Okada Museum of Art, which will open in July (the Wadsworth’s painting will travel to that show).

The triptych’s reunion marks an important moment for Utamaro scholarship, as well as for scholarship on Japanese art in general. Just being able to see the three paintings in the same room will help test hypotheses. James Ulak, the senior curator of Japanese art at the Freer|Sackler and the co-curator of the museum’s exhibition, contacted the Okada Museum of Art within days of the announcement of the rediscovery of Fukugawa in the Snow. He quickly received an indication from the Japanese museum that showing their painting “could happen.” Two years later, with the exhibition set, Ulak says, “Now we can do a really exhaustive study.” Much of that will be an analysis of the three paintings’ relationship to each other. “It’s one of the many mysteries related to the explosion of interest in Japanese art on the world level in the 19th century, that many ensembles of paintings were disassembled and sold,” says Ulak, “and now for the first time [the exhibition] brings together three works that were being talked about as a triptych, and we can see them side by side and test these theories.”

The oldest record of the triptych dates to November 23, 1879, when the three paintings were hung together in an exhibition at Joganji temple in Tochigi, a city about an hour and a half from Edo by train. At the time, all three paintings were in the possession of the Zenno family, a prominent Tochigi clan. Art historians have theorized that Snow, Moon and Flowers was painted for Zenno Ihei, a wealthy merchant. Outside of the 1879 exhibition, the theory is linked to the fact that women in each of the three paintings wear garments that bear the Zenno family crest. But, as with so many things about the Utamaro triptych, it’s hard to say definitively if this is true.

The paintings all depict groups of women in Edo’s brothels. They are all large scale. This is unusual for the ukiyo-e genre (pictures of the “floating world”—a realm of pleasure or fantasy outside of everyday life), which more typically takes the form of smaller woodblock prints, paintings, and books. However, the paintings have quite a few differences—particularly in the way the figures are rendered, their size, and their number. “One thought,” says Ulak, “is that the paintings could be by Utamaro and a studio of artists, which was very common.” Julie Nelson Davis, the show’s guest curator and a professor of art history at the University of Pennsylvania, says, “What holds the paintings together is ‘snow, moon, and flowers,’ which was a common theme in the period—there’s kind of a literate association.”

“But what’s odd about that,” says Ulak, “is that if one were intending to paint that theme, why would the moon come first in production?” In the speculative chronology of the three paintings, which was conjectured by a scholar associated with the Okada Museum based on stylistic features, the thematic order is strangely out of whack—with Moonlight Revelry at Dozo Sagami (moon) being the oldest, followed by Cherry Blossoms at Yoshiwara (flowers), and then Snow at Fukagawa (snow). But the theme aside, the very particular fashions of late 17th-century and early 18th-century Japan are what tip scholars off to the set’s chronology. “We can date work within a couple years according to hairstyle,” says Nelson Davis. “It’s just like today—no one wears ‘The Rachel’ anymore.”

Another difference between each painting is the district it depicts and the districts’ status. Yoshiwara was the only licensed brothel district in Edo during the creation of the triptych and was considered higher-class. “It had an exclusive aura about it,” says Ulak. “Visitors had to master a certain lingo, dress properly—there was kind of a code around it.” Cherry Blossoms of Yoshiwara has the most figures in it—nearly 50—and is certainly the most grand. Oliver Tostmann, the Susan Morse Hilles Curator of European Art at the Wadsworth and the organizing curator of the museum’s exhibition, says of the piece, “It’s an unheard of number of women for Utamaro—it’s like he wanted to show what he was capable of. You see all different ranks: star courtesans and the assistants who are helping them, little girls training to become courtesans, geishas upstairs, and women who are unrelated to these two groups whose role we’re not entirely sure of.” As in the other two paintings, there’s a complete absence of men. “It’s this female Arcadia that he created,” says Tostmann.

Shinagawa, which is represented in Moonlight Revelry at Dozo Sagami, was a district that developed a large trade in unlicensed prostitution. It was the first station on the road that leads from Edo to Kyoto, and as Ulak notes, “it became known as more cost-effective.” In Moonlight Revelry, Utamaro gives viewers a closer look at the women and their surroundings—fauna, decorative piece, and fabrics seem touchable. It’s almost as if the viewer were standing in the scene. There is a sense of calm, rather than the busy preparation of the Yoshiwara painting. Beyond the brothel is the sea—placid and baby-blue—a cradle for sailboats and the moon on the horizon. Fukugawa was a district in the eastern side of Edo known in particular for its geisha (though some of them also engaged in unlicensed prostitution). It is no surprise then that among the snow-filled branches of trees in Snow at Fukagawa stand quite a few geisha dressed in their finery. Less spacious than Moonlight Revelry at Dozo Sagami but less busy than Cherry Blossoms of Yoshiwara, the painting seems to strike a balance between the two.

The Freer|Sackler’s show seeks in part to understand Utamaro, one of the greatest print designers and painters of the ukiyo-e genre. “Utamaro was one of the first so-called ‘branded artists,’” says Ulak. “He created a celebrity persona, and his works were pitched that way.” Though Japanese culture typically values anonymity and the strength of the group rather than individual genius, Utamaro’s publishers marketed him as an artist of particular expertise and understanding: a sophisticated womanizer who knew sex and women. “There’s a fascination with cataloguing things during Utamaro’s time,” says Ulak, “and Utamaro depicts a lot of women in the licensed brothel district, but you also see him doing images of women around the city—waitresses, tea shop women, fan girls, wives—he starts to catalogue all the women in Edo and his publishers support that.” But other than his work and reputation, not much is known about the artist. “In the late 19th century, there’s a little documentation,” says Nelson Davis. “We learn he died in 1806, but we don’t even know where he was born.”

In the second half of the 19th century, the opening of Japan to the West and the presentation at the 1878 Paris World’s Fair gave rise to a craze for Japanese art and japonisme. All three paintings were brought to Paris a little over a decade after the exhibition in Tochigi. They were most likely in the possession of Hayashi Tadamasa, a Japanese art dealer who had a large hand in introducing ukiyo-e to the West.

It was from Tadamasa that a French collector first purchased the painting that eventually ended up at the Wadsworth. By the time the painting arrived there, the museum had amassed a rather impressive collection of Japanese fine and decorative art, including pieces from Commodore Perry’s exchange of gifts with Japan in 1853. Today the collection totals around 1,000 objects—many from acquisitions, others, gifts from local collections. “Utamaro and the Lure of Japan” puts 50 objects, including prints, textiles, porcelain, and armaments from the museum’s holdings on view alongside the two Utamaro paintings. The exhibition will contextualize Cherry Blossoms of Yoshiwara, a masterpiece that the Wadsworth has only shown once before. “In 2009 we had a little show about something in the vein of ‘unseen treasures from our collection,’” says Tostmann. “That was the first time the Utamaro painting was exhibited, and it was hung among European works and American works, so there was really no comparison.” The curator adds, “This exhibition is really the first time that we look comprehensively at Japanese art and what we have at the museum.”

As it happens, the Wadsworth is not the only New England museum taking stock of its holdings of Japanese art. The Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass., is currently showing “Japanese Impressions: Color Woodblock Prints from the Rodbell Family Collection” (through April 2). The exhibition features 73 color woodblock prints, 48 of which are from the Rodbell Family Collection given to the museum in 2014.

Adele Rodbell, a collector based in the Berkshires and the Clark’s longest-serving docent (she’s served for 38 years), lived in Japan with her late husband, Donald, and their three kids from 1969–72 after Donald was appointed a scientific representative for the research laboratory at General Electric. While in Japan, the family traveled around the country, and Adele took classes in Japanese art and calligraphy. After they returned to America, she began to collect Japanese prints, mostly through dealers. “Adele was very modest,” says Jay Clarke, the Manton Curator of Prints, Drawing and Photographs and the curator of the show. “She said she had a small collection, if I ever wanted to see it, and when I finally did, I was blown away.”

The collection features three generations of Japanese printmakers, including ukiyo-e artists of the 19th century who followed closely after Utamaro, such as Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Hiroshige. Awa Province: Naruto Whirlpools (1855) from Hiroshige’s series Famous Places in the Sixty-Odd Provinces is among the pieces on view. The richly colored print of a whirlpool and treacherous waves crashing on jagged rocks could be in a 21st-century manga. In its own time, the series started a trend of vertically composed landscapes. Another landscape series of Hiroshige’s, One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, was a favorite of Vincent van Gogh and James McNeill Whistler (a friend of Freer’s who turned the collector on to ukiyo-e). Plum Estate, Kameido, a print from the series that’s in the Clark’s exhibition, was copied by Van Gogh in 1887.

The exhibition also features examples of shin-hanga (new print), a movement that sprouted in Japan during the beginning of the 20th century. Shin-hanga blended traditional Japanese printmaking techniques with modern Western artistic principles like realism and perspective. The Rodbells collected several prints by Kawase Hasui, an artist whose work embodies this moment in Japanese printmaking. Hasui, who initially trained as a painter, created several prints that feature contemporary bridges. Two prints in the show, The Kaminohashi Bridge in Fukagawa, from Twelve Scenes of Tokyo (1920) and Evening Shower at Imai Bridge from One Hundred Views of Tokyo (1932), both depict wooden bridges stretched across the water in muted tones.

Another extension of the ukiyo-e tradition, sosaku-hanga, meaning “original creative print,” arose in Japan in the 1950s. Unlike many of their predecessors, who had different craftsmen help them with aspects of the complicated printmaking process, Sosaku-hanga printmakers developed the own designs and carved the woodblocks and printed the images themselves. The resulting prints were often minimal and abstract—a marriage of the modern with the traditional. “Japanese Impressions” boasts several prints by Kiyoshi Saito, a leader of the sosaku-hanga movement, including Gion in Kyoto B (1959), a highly geometric rendering of a Buddhist temple. Another standout of the exhibition is Hashimoto Okiie’s Young Girl and Iris (1952), an abstract image of a girl in a striped shirt sitting among giant blue irises. The striking print, which is not what a viewer would necessarily expect at a Japanese prints show, seems to be garnering a lot of attention. “When people familiar with W,estern art see it, they immediately say ‘Gauguin!’ says Clarke, “I was almost thinking of not having it in the exhibition because it’s so different—it’s like ‘one of these things is not like the other’ on Sesame Street—but in the end I put it in the introductory room.”

“A Third Gender: Beautiful Youths in Japanese Prints,” an exhibition opening at the Japan Society in New York this month (on view March 10–June 11) will also likely introduce viewers to work they’re not used to. The exhibition focuses on wakashu, a group of comely male youths who constituted their own gender category during the Edo period (1603–1868), and their place in the art of that period.

Though a non-binary view of gender is just beginning to take root in mainstream thinking, early modern Japan explored the notion that sexuality is not simply defined by biological sex centuries ago. Wakashu, or “beautiful youths,” was essentially a group of adolescent males who were sexually mature but had not passed through the coming-of-age ceremonies that proclaimed a boy a man in Japanese society. “The wakashu is a younger generation—adolescent, teenager—who is not yet considered an adult,” says Yukie Kamiya, the Gallery Director at the Japan Society. “In Japan, 20 years old is mature age; you can start voting and drinking and you change your hairstyle.” Kamiya says, “Japan especially appreciates this generation.”

Much like the eromenos, or youths, of the pederasty in ancient Greece, the wakashu occupied their own place within the social hierarchy and sexual mores of the time. Like in Greece, wakashu were often the companions of older men (though they could be the objects of female suitors, as well), taking part in sexual relationships known as nanshoku. However, unlike in Greece, wakashu was not an expression of male power relationships, nor was it an expression of masculinity or femininity, but rather the essence of youthful beauty. “As a group, they’re very gender-neutral,” says Kamiya.

The exhibition features some 65 woodblock prints, as well as paintings, lacquerwork objects, and personal ornaments. The pieces come from the collection of the Royal Ontario Museum, which boasts one of the most extensive Japanese art collections in North America. The exhibition features several popular types of ukiyo-e, including shunga, or erotic prints, and images of kabuki actors. Of the former, Kamiya says, “In Japan 80 to 90 percent of museums are run by tax money, so they are afraid of showing erotic prints, but there are many in private collections and a lot of interest because of how creatively they depict sexuality.” The latter will explore both onnagata—men who played female roles in the theater and thus had to dress as women—and haori-geisha—geisha who dressed in men’s clothes while entertaining their clients.

Often mistaken for women, wakashu can be identified by their hairstyle and other characteristics. With “A Third Gender,” the group and its complex place in society, which has been largely overlooked, will finally be explored. One piece in the show, Woman and Wakashu (1790s), a work attributed to the Utamaro school, features a youth in the grasp of a woman. Isoda Koryusai’s Samurai Wakashu and Maid, shows the wakashu again as a sexual object. Youth on a Long-Tailed Turtle as Urashima Taro, a 1767 print by Suzuki Harunobu, depicts a young man sailing along the water on the back of a large turtle. His expression is both cocky and wistful, as if to provoke jealousy in anyone younger or older. It reminds the viewer that even now, when traditional notions of gender are being dismantled and sexuality is more about choice than circumstance, there is still one thing one can’t choose to be: young.


By Sarah E. Fensom

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: March 2017

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