Artist: Kitagawa Utamaro
Commentary by Keith Lawrence
Associate Professor of English
I want to begin by acknowledging a few things about Utamaro’s print that will undoubtedly make some viewers uncomfortable. Utamaro’s title for the print appears inside the cartouche, or vertical box, in the upper-left corner: 『遊君出そめ初衣裳』 [Yuukun dezome hatsu-ishou] or Courtesans Donning Kimonos for the Traditional New Year Stroll. The right-most line of characters in that same upper-left corner informs the viewer that the depicted scene is inside the Daimonjiya, a famous geisha house in the Yoshiwara pleasure-district of old Tokyo. The other lines in the upper-left corner provide the names of the three geisha, which Utamaro depicts; the two younger girls in the print are attendants to the three adults—and will likely become geisha themselves someday.
As an artist, Utamaro is hardly alone in depicting subjects whose lifestyles, occupations, or characters are not simply foreign to the viewer, but even repulsive. Yet within the contexts of the works in which they appear, such artistic depictions may be aesthetically beautiful and morally profound.
As a prominent ukiyo-e or woodblock print artist of the late eighteenth century, Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806) featured many subjects in his works—domestic scenes, landscapes, animals, insects, military figures, and cityscapes. But perhaps his defining subject was the female form; and it seems to have been his life objective to understand and accurately capture women’s beauty.
This print, Courtesans Donning Kimonos for the Traditional New Year Stroll [Five Young Japanese Ladies], is remarkable to me in its dynamics, its aesthetic tension. In one sense, the beauty of all five figures emerges from their calmness, their quiet placidity. In another, however, their beauty depends upon a poised—and perhaps even posed—stillness where motion (and emotion) are carefully held in check. The woman on the right deftly pulls her outer kimono up over her shoulders, preserving the rich and unruffled beauty of the garment as she dons it, and perfectly maintaining as well her own cool suavity. The middle woman deliberately adjusts her obi, the wide “belt-sash” around her waist; the woman on the left, every hairpin and clothing-layer strictly in place, is caught mid-step as she shifts position, revealing only the slightest impatience as she waits for the first woman to be ready. The girl on the right stands with apparent indifference, consciously not looking at the kimono she will help the first woman pull up over her shoulders. Indeed, she and the three women each look in a different direction; each assumes a studied pose, a deliberate unruffled-ness. Only the girl on the left looks down, face flushed and eyes dancing, as she apparently tries with all her might not to be excited, not to let her emotions show, not to mar the self-collected beauty she must always display.
I remember the first time I saw this print I saw Utamaro’s stylized faces as virtually identical. But the more one studies the print, the more individualized each face becomes. Now I am amazed by Utamaro’s capacity to create distinctive, identifiable faces—and even to suggest personality—through subtle differences in the position or composition of facial features.
But what strikes me most forcibly about this print is its focus on externality, on what might be called surface beauty. As stunning as the suggestive qualities of the print may be, its genius resides in the meticulous and almost photographic details of the women’s kimonos. One notices, for example, the repeated crane print on the sleeves and skirt of the kimono belonging to the geisha on the left; one notes the subtle details on the collar of the kimono belonging to the geisha in the middle. The most prominent of the three geisha, however, is the one on the right; and her kimono is richly beautiful almost beyond description. I can hardly imagine the skill required to carve the intricate patterns of this kimono and its magnificent obi, much less to ink the woodblock in preparation for the print. Even the attendant of this geisha is clothed impressively.
Because of its inherently truthful capturing of its subjects, the print embodies for me a certain pathos as well. What the women wear—and not their faces—is eventually my focus as I view the print. Their beauty, in large part, thus springs from appearance. And their excitement derives in main from their imminent public appearance where they will stroll in their fabulous kimonos before admiring crowds. There is a temporality in such beauty, and a vacuity as well. It is on this level that I see both aesthetic and moral profundity in Utamaro’s Courtesans Donning.