Tinios on Katz and Hatayama, 'Painting the Floating World: Ukiyo-e Masterpieces from the Weston Collection'

Janice Katz, Mami Hatayama, eds.
Ellis Tinios

Janice Katz, Mami Hatayama, eds. Painting the Floating World: Ukiyo-e Masterpieces from the Weston Collection. Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 2018. Illustrations. 350 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-300-23691-0.

Reviewed by Ellis Tinios (Visiting Researcher, Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University) Published on H-Japan (November, 2019) Commissioned by Martha Chaiklin

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=54556

In little more than twenty years, Roger L. Weston succeeded in assembling a remarkable collection of some 160 ukiyo-e paintings of the highest quality that span the entire history of the genre. The Art Institute of Chicago’s exhibition catalogue, Painting the Floating World: Ukiyo-e Masterpieces from the Weston Collection, does full justice to Weston’s astonishing achievement. The spacious layout of this substantial volume presents the beautifully reproduced color images to maximum advantage. To do justice to the eight Weston handscrolls displayed at the Art Institute, each scroll is presented in its entirety on folded sheets that extend to three or four pages. The bulk of the catalogue entries are provided by Janice Katz, Mami Hatayama, and Sarah Sumpter with further contributions from Jenny Preston, Helen M. Nagata, and Murata Takato. Despite the multiple authorship, the entries are consistent throughout in the level of detail they provide. In addition, the texts inscribed on individual paintings are presented in the original Japanese, transcribed into roman script, translated, and explained by the authors in their entries.

The catalogue is punctuated by nine essays that add immeasurably to its value. The volume is dedicated to the memory of Nagata Seiji (1951-2018), the author of the lead essay, “Toward a Revised History of Ukiyo-e.” In his essay, Nagata traces the origins of ukiyo-e imagery back to screens decorated with genre scenes created in the Kamigata region (Kyoto and Osaka) in the seventeenth century. Indeed, the first item in the exhibition and the earliest painting in the Weston collection is a pair of such screens. Nagata goes on to explore the meaning of the term “ukiyo” and charts the transmission of the style to Edo (present-day Tokyo), where it was consolidated by Hishikawa Moronobu, whom Nagata does not hesitate to confirm as “the founding ukiyo-e artist” (p. 27). Nonetheless, he argues against separating the histories of genre painting in Kyoto and in Edo. He prefers to see their histories as “unified rather than separate” (p. 30).

Mami Hatayama’s essay, “Ways of Seeing Beauty in Ukiyo-e,” engages directly with the paintings, examining the ways the depiction of beauty changed over time. She goes beyond consideration of changes in fashion to explore innovations in the production of prints and paintings, and the impact of those innovations on the evolution of ukiyo-e imagery. She also alerts us to the literary, political, and emotional content often embedded in the paintings. Hatayama assists us in reading the paintings, guiding us toward a deeper understanding of their complex imagery.

In the next essay, “Beauty and Identity in Katsukawa Shunchō’s Standing Courtesan,” Janice Katz explores one painting in depth. This essay is a tour de force of solid scholarship and deep connoisseurship accessibly presented. Katz stresses the importance of considering both ukiyo-e prints and paintings in order to understand the aesthetic values and priorities of the period. We have in this painting, which was created around 1790, a meticulously rendered depiction of a courtesan of the highest rank complemented by a Chinese poem by a late Ming dynasty poet elegantly inscribed above the figure. If the signature—yūjo Hanaōgi kaku (“written by courtesan Hanaōgi”)—following the poem is to be believed, it was inscribed on the painting by Hanaōgi, a name used by a succession of noted Yoshiwara courtesans. For all the specificity of the signature and the meticulous rendering of textiles, hair, and hair ornaments, the sensitive face is not that of a specific woman. This is not a portrait. In their theater prints, ukiyo-e school artists went to great pains from the 1760s onward to differentiate the features of individual actors so that each would be immediately identifiable. This was not the case in their depictions of women, whether in print or in paintings. As Katz describes the result, the idealized beauties presented to us by ukiyo-e artists are “captivating but unknowable” (p. 56).

The last of the introductory essays is Murata Takako’s “The Splendor of Hairstyles, Fashion, and Cosmetics in Ukiyo-e Paintings.” This essay is dense, in particular in the section dealing with the evolution of hairstyles, but repays mining for the wealth of information it contains. Hairstyles can be important indicators of the age and rank of the women depicted. They can also assist in providing an approximate date for the creation of a given painting. However, Murata observes that “each woman transcends her societal role and becomes a representation of feminine beauty” apart from the precise nature of her occupation and social status (p. 69).

The first erotic work (shunga) in the catalogue is preceded by a brief essay by Timothy Clark that provides a succinct overview of the nature and importance of this genre. (For those wishing to pursue this subject further, the key English-language publication is Shunga: Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art, a British Museum exhibition catalogue edited by Timothy Clark, C. Andrew Gerstle, Aki Ishigami, and Akiko Yano [2013].) The work that introduces the genre in this catalogue is an elegant, eighteen-foot long (539-centimeter) handscroll by Tamura Suiō. It is reproduced in full on a four-page foldout. It presents twelve couples against a plain ground in various stages of intimacy. As Jennifer Preston points out in her entry on the handscroll, works such as this focus on “the need for emotional, affective engagement” (p. 110). This is the first of four outstanding erotic handscrolls in the Weston Collection.

Spaced at intervals through the rest of the catalogue are four additional essays which explore aspects of ukiyo-e paintings that are sometimes neglected. The first of these essays is Helen M. Nagata’s “A Word on Inscriptions: Writing and Image on Bijinga paintings.” The interplay of painting, poetry, and calligraphy in a work of art has a long history in East Asia; it also plays an important role in ukiyo-e paintings and prints. Nagata draws on inscribed paintings in the Weston collection to illuminate how poetry can enhance the meaning of a painting and how calligraphy can echo the brushwork of the artist. As she concludes, “paintings with literary inscriptions ... left lasting invitations for intellection engagement. After contemplating such works, a bijinga without an inscription seems rather bare” (p. 159).

Clark’s second contribution, “‘Transformational Pictures’: Mitate-e and Yatsushi-e,” explores important aesthetic strategies available to ukiyo-e artists. They might take an elevated historical, literary, or religious scene and present it—in contemporary style—replayed in a lowly context (yatsushi-e), or they might identify “unexpected similarities between otherwise unrelated categories of things” to produce a “comic collision between normally unrelated worlds” (pp. 190-91). These approaches imbue a painting with layered meanings and an element of humor for those who can grasp the allusions and understand the improbability of the scene before them. (This subject is treated exhaustively in Alfred Haft’s Aesthetic Strategies of the Floating World [2013].)

In “Feminine Beauty in Edo: Utagawa Toyokuni’s One Hundred Looks of Various Women,” Murata Takako explores Toyokuni’s remarkable set of twenty-four paintings that offer a survey of women of all classes and stations in Edo society. Each painting is approximately 16 x 23 inches (40 x 58 centimeters) and in perfect condition. The paintings are intimately related to Toyokuni’s two-volume, color woodblock printed book Ehon imayō sugata of 1802. Murata’s essay left me wishing for more. This remarkable set of paintings merits a dedicated publication.

Finally, in “To Dress a Beautiful Woman: Painting and Mounting Techniques in Ukiyo-e,” Tanya Uyeda, in addition to presenting insights into the ways ukiyo-e artists worked, discusses an important but often overlooked feature of hanging scroll paintings: their mounts. Mounts are invariably cropped when a painting is presented in print; all attention is given to the painting itself. Yet the mounts do much to enhance the viewer’s experience of a painting, and, because mounts are often renewed, they can also reflect the response of later generations to the work. Four Weston paintings are reproduced in this essay with their full mounts, to suggest their variety and demonstrate their impact. “As paintings changed hands, the mounter’s aesthetic joined with that of the collector, creating scroll mountings that support, celebrate, and sometimes rival the artworks themselves” (p. 319).

The catalogue concludes with a three-page glossary of Japanese terms appearing in the text, presented in roman letters only. There is also an extensive bibliography and full index.

The care and scholarship that went into the production of this catalogue makes it the most accessible and useful overview of ukiyo-e paintings currently available in English. Its value is enhanced by the high quality and generous scale of the illustrations, which do full justice to the remarkable works of art assembled by Weston.

Citation: Ellis Tinios. Review of Katz, Janice; Hatayama, Mami, eds., Painting the Floating World: Ukiyo-e Masterpieces from the Weston Collection. H-Japan, H-Net Reviews. November, 2019. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54556

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