Eastern Art Online, Yousef Jameel Centre for Islamic and Asian Art

Ashmolean − Eastern Art Online, Yousef Jameel Centre for Islamic and Asian Art

Beauties of the Four Seasons

A full catalogue of the Ashmolean’s collection of Japanese bijinga (beautiful women) prints by Mitsuko Watanabe (published Oxford, 2005).

Beauties of the Four Seasons by Mitsuko Watanabe

Beauties of the Four Seasons

‘Pictures of beautiful women' (bijinga) is a popular theme in Japanese prints. It has been one of the fundamental sources in the development of 'pictures of the floating world' (ukiyo-e), which includes both paintings and the more widely appreciated ukiyo-e wood block prints. Ukiyo-e traces its origins back to bijinga from the Kanbun era (1661-73), incorporating the theme of 'bad places’ (akusho), which were the kabuki and pleasure quarters of those days.

During the Edo period (1603-1868), bijinga developed particularly using images of courtesans of the Yoshiwara pleasure quarters who were known as the 'Flowers of Edo',  but also from images of the beauties at famous tea shops and ladies from samurai families. Other subject matters in ukiyo-e were kabuki actors, landscapes, satires of historical and political figures, legendary heroes and flowers and birds. However, the theme of bijinga in particular helped to create a new cultural mood for the Edo world. Bijinga is interesting not only because of the aesthetics of the beau­ties themselves but also for the various themes that are associated with this art form. They may depict, for example, the fashions and tastes of beauties combined with seasonal elements in the scenes.

The Edo period was a time when cities began to flourish and the increasing prosperity of the chōnin (townsmen) led to new cultures and traditions. The introduction of ukiyo-e during this time was a revelation especially as the contents of ukiyo-e were essential to expressing the chic (iki) and novel culture of the chōnin world. As ukiyo-e could be mass-pro­duced, they were more affordable than original paintings. It was not long before ukiyo-e established itself as a source of pleasure and enjoyment especially for the chōnin. Bijinga reflected the latest trends in fashion and kimono (kosode) design in a society where the courtesans of the Yoshi­wara set the trend. In other words, ukiyo-e became the 'Vogue' of the Edo period.

Why was the Yoshiwara pleasure quarter so influential in the world of ukiyo-e, and in what way did the courtesans of the Yoshiwara become the fashion leaders of society? The Yoshiwara was a place of expression and fulfilment of the dreams of the chōnin in the midst of strict feudal regula­tions of the Edo period, although there were other areas known as Okabasho where prostitutes gathered and entertainment was much less expensive. The Yoshiwara was a special pleasure quarter, licensed by the government, and was a place where people could find and expand their cultural sensibilities and become more aware of current fashions. Intellec­tual people who were at the forefront of their time would gather in the Yoshiwara, which was considered the centre of Edo culture and spirit. For ukiyo-e artists, it was thus natural that the culture and inspiration arising from the Yoshiwara was illustrated in their bijinga in order to attract view­ers and make their prints more appreciated.

The Courtesan Tagasode of Daimonji-ya (EAX.4042) The Courtesan Tagasode of Daimonji-ya (EAX.4042)

In the Yoshiwara there were houses associ­ated with the various ranks of courtesans such as oiran, kamuro and shinzō. The top-ranked courtesans, the oiran, became role models within the Yoshiwara and were also known to the outside world through their portraits as 'models’ in the modern sense. The oiran were not only required to possess a beautiful figure but also many other qualities including intel­lect, culture, education and a high degree of sophistication. On the other hand, the kamuro who were of the lowest rank and were normal­ly seven or eight years of age, accompanied the oiran. They are often depicted in ukiyo-e in pairs next to the oiran [EAX.4042] and after about six years of special training, a kamuro became a shinzō [see EAX.4113] and then wore coiffures and kimono designed for adults. With further training, at the age of seventeen or eighteen she officially became a courtesan, an oiran. Through education of these courtesans, their sense of fashion and style – textile patterns, length of kosode sleeves, manner of tying the obi, the way of make-up and coiffures – became the cutting edge of fashion. With their outstanding qualities, it is therefore not surprising that these courtesans became the leaders of fashion in society.

The kosode, which is a symbol of beauty and fashion, underwent several developments and changes during the Edo period, two of these being the refinement of dyeing techniques and an increase in the availability of cot­ton for dyeing. Improved communication and transportation helped to circulate materials. Meanwhile, the chōnin were becoming wealthy enough to afford such kosode and enjoyed the pleasure of wearing them as a fashion statement. Many forms of design catalogues were published between the 1660s and 1830s in Kyoto and Edo, for example, the Kosode hinagata-bon ('kimono design catalogue'), which introduced a tremendous number of new kosode designs.

During the early to mid-Edo period, textiles produced in Kyoto were greatly appreciated throughout Japan, and Kyoto was the fashion centre of the country. Techniques such as embroidery and Yūzen-zome (surface-dyeing technique) invented by Miyazaki Yūzen who was a fan painter, were incorporated into kosode design. Even after the designs of Yūzen went out of fashion in the late seventeenth century, the technique itself was retained along with embroidered decoration and kyō-kanoko (tie-dyed patterns) and is still used to this very day. Particularly between 1711 and 1735, Kōrin-moyō, patterns which are derived from the style of Ogata Kōrin (1658-1716), were also adopted in many kosode designs and made their way into books such as Kosode hinagata-bon.

After the 1750s, the city of Edo developed its own original style of fashion. Several sumptuary laws were issued by the government in an attempt to regulate the behaviour, dress and style of living of the chōnin during the 18th and 19th centuries. However, the prohibition of conspicu­ous extravagance in clothing for example, actually prompted an alterna­tive means of expression for the people and gave rise to a distinct and unique Edo fashion; colours of kosode became darker consisting of many shades of brown and grey, and the use of stripes as a design became more evident.

Early ukiyo-e employed the benizuri-e (printed safflower red pictures) technique and utilised hand-applied colours in a limited palette of red, yel­low and green only. In 1765, the innovative technique of nishiki-e (bro­cade prints) was introduced into ukiyo-e and this was used to enhance the image of kosode. The name nishiki-e derives from lively polychrome images that were like the woven brocade textiles of Kyoto, called Nishijin-ori. An increasing number of colours were used on the prints and were made from vegetable dyes. These were prone to fading as they underwent chemical reactions. Over time, some colours faded faster than others, an effect which can be seen in many of the prints in this catalogue. Various other techniques such as gauffrage (embossing) and the application of mica were also adopted. The added texture of figures and objects depicted in prints looked more gorgeous and realistic and gave them another dimen­sion. Most of the prints in this catalogue use gauffrage, especially for the patterns on kosode and for the flowers in the background. For ukiyo-e artists, nishiki-e and other techniques allowed a new approach to wood block print­ing and gave them a different way of portraying fashion and figures.

The development of nishiki-e was closely related to the production of egoyomi (picture calendar) that mainly depicted beauties and used a wide range of colours. In the early eighteenth century, a group of dilettante in Edo began to commission illustrated egoyomi to be exchanged during the New Year. This custom came into existence because of the complex lunar calendar (kyūreki) in use during the Edo period. However, while there were generally 29 (shō no tsuki) or 30 days (dai no tsuki) in the month, the combination varied every year. This divided the calendar year into twelve, or sometimes thirteen months. As a result, the division of the four seasons differed from the kyūreki to the shinreki (solar calendar) of today. Therefore, our present day New Year (1 January) in the Edo period would have been equivalent to the beginning of December. Thus for kyūreki, spring was from January to March, summer was from April to June, autumn was from July to September and winter was from October to December. The print collection in this catalogue is described using the kyūreki calendar so that the reader can more closely identify with the orig­inal intention of the artists.

Egoyomi were however, not just a method for displaying the lunar cal­endar but also a means of enjoying the aesthetic illustrations on the calen­dar. In addition, the artists would ingeniously hide the days of the month either within the design of the kosode or amongst the objects shown in the print. Producing such egoyomi was highly dependent on collaboration between commissioner, artist, carver and printer. Ukiyo-e artists such as Suzuki Harunobu (c. 1725-70) used all of these devices and created multi-coloured images of women wearing beautiful kosode in his bijinga. Harunobu was the most popular artist to be commissioned to produce egoyomi establishing his own unique style of bijinga.

Chōfu Jewel River (EAX.3954) Chōfu Jewel River (EAX.3954)

Nishiki-e were produced by various artists and bijinga gradually changed to accommodate the taste of the chōnin and to reflect current trends. The transition of the bijinga style during the Golden Age of ukiyo-e (c. 1750-1850) represented a movement from the emotional romanticism of Harunobu to more naturalistic representation. In Harunobu’s prints, using mainly chūban sized sheets (about 30 x 20 cm), men and women were beautifully, yet imaginatively, depicted with slender and graceful figures. He often incorporated a method known as mitate (parody or metaphor of a classical theme) into his works, also adopted by later artists. The mitate [EAX.3954] was sometimes easily recognizable, but most of the time required prior knowledge in order to comprehend the riddle, which would have given the chōnin a great sense of satisfaction. The style of Harunobu was contin- ued by Isoda Koryūsai (active 1764-89) but after Harunobu’s death in 1770, Koryūsai moved on to establish his own style, adopting ōban sized sheets (about 40 x 26cm) for his print format. From that time ukiyo-e beauties were portrayed in a more realistic manner. The fashion series, Hinagata wakana no hatsumoyō ('Models for fashions, new design as fresh as young leaves’) [EAX.4042] by Koryūsai shows courtesans reflecting new fashions and trends in ukiyo-e. From this time there were noticeable changes in the styles of other ukiyo-e artists.

The Courtesan Wakaume of the Tamaya (EAX.4113) The Courtesan Wakaume of the Tamaya (EAX.4113)

During the Tenmei and Kansei (1781-1801) eras of the Golden Age, a new style of ukiyo-e evolved. Torii Kiyonaga (1752-1815) revolutionized the concept of aesthetic beauty by placing particular emphasis on his tall slim figures with proportionately small heads that created an unique and aesthetically pleasing image of beauty. Incorporating western-style perspective, this effect was further enhanced by the splendour of the kosode worn by the figures. This gave an increased dimension to the visual space of the image and the atmosphere of the seasons. The patterns and designs of kosode were more vividly illustrated than previously and the activities of the beauties were delicately expressed. Hashira-e (pillar picture, about 65 x 12cm) designed to be hung on the side of a square wooden interior pillar of a house, sometimes in order to hide the knots in the wood, were particularly popular at the time of Kiyonaga [EAX.4076].

Following Kiyonaga, Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806) became a popu­lar bijinga artist. He was fascinated by the facial expressions of women in daily life, and included in his prints girls from teahouses and women from noble families as well as the courtesans of the Yoshiwara showing emo­tion. He often portrayed figures as okubi-e (bust portraits) [EAX.4721].

The Courtesan Kisegawa of the Matsubaya (EAX.4721) The Courtesan Kisegawa of the Matsubaya (EAX.4721)

After the death of Utamaro in 1806, Kikukawa Eizan’s (1787-1867) popularity rose as a bijinga artist, retaining the late Utamaro style while incorporating his own individual touches; his beauties displayed fragility and naïveté. From the Bunsei era (1818-29), bijinga reflected the decadent mood of the Bakumatsu (the last days of the Tokugawa Shōgunate of the Edo period) and gradually ukiyo-e artists began to focus more on the seductiveness of these beautiful women. Kikukawa Eisen (1791-1848), a disciple of Eizan, particularly depicted lower class prostitutes from the Okabasho, while producing several series of landscape prints.

This catalogue, Beauties of the Four Seasons, focuses particularly on beauties associated with the seasonal elements. The prints have been cho­sen to show beautiful women wearing different types of decorative kimono that reflect the different seasons. In Japan, the four seasons play a significant role in everyday life. Many aspects of culture and tradition, which relate to, or are influenced by the seasons, are important; for exam­ple events, festivals, costume, food, flowers, interior decorations and poetry. The custom of ohanami (cherry blossom viewing) ingrained and rooted in the lifestyle of the Japanese is often seen in ukiyo-e. There were several popular parks for ohanami, such as Ueno, Mukōjima and Mount Asuka in Edo. At that time, people gathered wearing new kimono that were especially made for the season; these were called hanami kosode.

With strong distinctions between the seasons, seasonal transitions were also important and much respected. The atmosphere was felt through changes seen in the natural landscape and served to emphasise the cycle of the sea­sons arousing pleasurable feelings in combination with a great respect for nature. Peo­ple appreciated the feeling of being in harmony with nature; for instance, towards the end of summer, just as autumn was approaching, the aki no nanakusa (seven grasses of autumn) such as bush clover, would bloom together with the last irises of summer.

For people in the Edo period, the beauties depicted in ukiyo-e were fashionable images. Ukiyo-e artists chose consciously or subconsciously seasonal scenes or backgrounds for their beauties so that they might be portrayed in the most natural manner. People would have enjoyed looking at the seasonal kimono shown in the prints, in order to decide what to wear for the next season. In this catalogue, it has been our intention to select prints which place the focus of attention on the season in relation to the beauty, rather than merely focusing on the beauty herself.

I would personally like to thank James Allan, Paul Ch’en, Chris Gosden, Greg Irvine, Declan McCarthy, Flora Nuttgens, Joyce Seaman, Richard Smethurst and everyone in the Department of Eastern Art for their support.


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