Today, I found Sebastian Izzard’s latest Asian Art Catalogue 15 in the post. Its cover features a detail of a print by Kitagawa Utamaro. Titled Pensive Love (Mono omou koi), or Wistful Love as it is called in the catalogue #23, it has a bust-portrait of some Japanese woman resting her head upon her right arm and staring to the ceiling (?). She is wearing a grey kimono with a repeated pattern of plovers, chidori, surrounded by numerous dots, over a kimono with a crossed pattern in yellow on a black ground, and an under kimono with a tie-dyed starfish pattern in purple. Otherwise, we can notice that her hairdo is fixed by just one wooden comb and one simple wooden hairpin, and finished with one metal (?) hairpin featuring a decoration of a stylised paulownia flower, kiri, and a purple ribbon. Moreover, her eyebrows are shaven, suggesting she is a married woman, or possibly some courtesan employed in the Yoshiwara licensed quarters of Edo, present-day Tokyo.

courtesy Sebastian Izzard

Also, if we want to appreciate the delicacy of this print, we must realise that the most obvious way to ‘read’ a Japanese image, is – like reading Japanese traditional texts – from top right to left bottom. And so our eyes immediately meet with the half-closed eyes of the woman in the print. And then we notice that she is resting her head on her arm. And then we look back and see her half-closed eyes and her mouth. And looking more closely, we notice that the outlines of her face are not in the common strong black sumi ink, but rather in a much more delicate soft grey.

Uramaro (act. 1779-1804)

Although Utamaro is often called the foremost portraitist of the courtesans of the Yoshiwara, we should realise that only some 200 portraits out of a total of some 1100 prints for the 1780s and 1790s are of identified or identifiable women. Moreover, this has probably nothing to do with the ban on portraying identified prostitutes as part of the Kansei Reforms of 1793. In my opinion, Utamaro was just tired of making more portraits celebrating the features of courtesans, prints that were as a rule subsidised by the owners running the various brothels. That is why we find so many prints of courtesans of the Chōjiya, Ōgiya and Matsubaya houses, their owners always willing to spend some money for the promotion of their Hinazuru, Takigawa and Hanaōgi, Somenosuke and Yosooi as the foremost beauties of the Kansei Period (1789-1801). Instead, Utamaro soon came to realize that these young women had thoughts of themselves, and were indeed personalities gifted with ideas and views, and consequently, he got seriously interested in what we might call the psyche of women. In a series of prints dating from slightly earlier than that on aspects of love, started under the title of Ten Types of Women’s Physiognomy (Fujo ninsō juppin) and changed halfway to The Physiognomy of Ten Women (Fujin sōgaku juttai) of about 1791/92, he signs as the ‘physiognomist Utamaro’, Utamaro “who can read faces and tell you who you are.”

In the series on aspects or manifestations of love, Utamaro drops that claim, but he really demonstrates beyond doubt that he does realise that also women have their thoughts. In fact, this is what I am convinced marks the end of ukiyoe as ‘Pictures of the Floating World.’ This no longer classifies as the world seen through pink glasses, this is the beginning of Japanese print Art – with a capital A. 

In 1977 I was working with Huguette Beres as she was preparing her Utamaro exhibition, a great learning experience, I must say. She was, understandably, quite shocked when I managed to convince her to omit some twenty or so prints that I believed were not the work of Utamaro (Utamaro I that is, I should add) – but “that’s another story” as the saying goes. But otherwise, when we found the time to quietly discuss many different subjects, she already in bed and I seated on a chair and drinking one more glass of wine, we found ourselves absolutely agreeing that The Ultimate Utamaro Exhibition would be comprised of just two items:

To the left the most intimate view of two lovers, as the first plate in Utamaro’s erotic album The Pillow Book (Utamakura) of 1788, the Pensive Love print to the right. That, we agreed, is really the essence of what Utamaro contributed to the tradition of Japanese prints, greatly contributing to our understanding of what we now often consider the ‘Golden Age of Ukiyoe’ – actually a much more complex set of ideas than this epitheton could possibly evoke — to be continued.

By the way, isn’t it remarkable that eight out of nine known copies of this design are held in non-Japanese collections?