Saturday, April 7, 2007

'The moment I wake up, before I put on my make-up, ... '

'Oiran' from the series 'Five Shades of Ink from the North Country' 1795

Ukiyo-e woodblock prints ('pictures of the floating world') developed in the metropolitan culture of the Edo (Tokyo) period, mainly the C18 and C19, and often represented a world outside conventional society. Of the geisha and the courtesans, actors and beauties, teahouses and the theatre, restaurants and brothels. The Japanese equivalent of the C19 French 'demi-mode'.

One of the great masters of this woodblock printing was Utamaro (1753-1806):

'Two Geisha's' 1803

'Courtesan with a Fan' 1798

'Passionate Love'

'The Music Lesson' 1804

'Too Much Sake' 1801

These prints also pictured nature and the landscape as in the work of Hokusai (1760-1849) and Hiroshige (1797-1858):

'The Wave' Hokusai

'Irises' Hiroshige

Even given that these 'pictures of the floating world' may show the life the half world of geisha, courtesans and the like, they depict it with an easy intimacy that surprises Westerners. Particularly in scenes of daily life involving nudity or sexual activity:

'TeppĂ´' from the series 'Five Shades of Ink from the North Country' 1795

'Courtesan in Deshabille' from the series 'Ten Feminine Facial Types' 1790?

'Mother with her baby boy looking into a mirror' 1798

'Nap Time' 1802

Not that such representations could not be also erotically-charged:

Suzuki Harunobu 'Lovers' 1760s

Japanese prints reached Europe in the C19, often as the wrappings for porcelain objects. Their influence on European painting - both Impressionism and Post-Impressionism - was immense. Tons has been written, with the usual litany of illustrating works by Degas and so on. But one of the loveliest paintings falling under this influence is Le Coiffure by Mary Cassatt (1883):

'Le Coiffure' (1883) Mary Cassatt

While not holding a seminal place in art history, this canvass shows many characteristics of this artistic cross-fertilization.

It is an intimate scene of everyday domestic life. There are similar European traditions, such as the Dutch interiors of de Hooch and Vermeer, of kitchens and dining rooms and the like. But now we have something far more intimate ... a woman in her boudoir fixing her hair after bathing. Nudity of course had been depicted in Western art but had been reserved for specific genres, such as historical scenes, like 'Greeks fighting Other Persons' by Someone-or-other. Rather than at home where is would be seen as pornographic.

There is a flattening towards two dimensions. The body of the woman is not modeled into the round. So that, as well as representing the human figure, it is a pink form functioning as a formal element in the composition of lines, shapes and colors. Though perspective is somewhat suggested by the lines of her mirror rising towards a central vanishing point somewhere to the back left.

Forms are outlined in black, giving the feeling of the work being woodblock printed rather than painted. So that, if the painting were turned upside down, it would dissolve into a abstract composition.

And unlike a 'good' painting or photograph, represented things are cut off, like the woman's left arm in the mirror. A parallel arm amputation can be seen above in Utamaro's 'Mother with her baby boy looking into a mirror' (1798).

One curious and final point. I actually prefer the faded almost monochromatic Japanese prints to the better preserved more full color ones. And this seems akin to liking Greek and Roman sculpture as we usually have it rather than in the original painted form:

Head of 'The Peplos Kore' (Male Body) c530 BC, Acropolis Museum, Athens

'The Peplos Kore' (Male Body) c530 BC, Acropolis Museum, Athens

'The Peplos Kore' (Male Body) c530 BC, Acropolis Museum, Athens (Painted)

Scary stuff! Reckon I'd walk on by if it were for sale in Khan El Khalili, the great souk in Cairo:

Actually, I remember meeting this hot Arab guy in the souk ... . But this is a whole other post. So 'To Be Continued'!

No comments:

Post a Comment