Sack­ler shows three pieces by Ja­panese painter whose stature is leg­endary but whose life re­mains a rid­dle

The Washington Post - - ON EXHIBIT - BY MARK JENK­INS

Kita­gawa Uta­maro de­picted women so well, it was said, be­cause he knew them so well. He was a scholar, a con­nois­seur and, of course, a lover of women. That’s how the Ja­panese artist (1753-1806) was mar­keted to po­ten­tial buy­ers of his work, both in his time and place and then a cen­tury later in Paris. That city is where the three large paint­ings in the Arthur M. Sack­ler Gallery’s “In­vent­ing Uta­maro: A Ja­panese Mas­ter­piece Re­dis­cov­ered” were prob­a­bly sold to three buy­ers. They haven’t been ex­hib­ited to­gether since 1879.

Now “Moon at Shi­na­gawa,” “Fuk­a­gawa in the Snow” and “Cherry Blos­soms at Yoshi­wara” have been re­united. “Snow” is the re­dis­cov­ery. Its lo­ca­tion was un­known be­tween 1948 and 2014, when Ja­pan’s Okada Mu­seum of Art an­nounced that it had ac­quired it.

The paint­ings are ex­tra­or­di­nary, but they’re not all the ex­hi­bi­tion of­fers. The art­works’ his­tor­i­cal con­text is drawn in de­tail by James Ulak, the Freer and Sack­ler’s se­nior cu­ra­tor of Ja­panese art, and guest cu­ra­tor Julie Nel­son Davis, a Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia pro­fes­sor of art his­tory.

Yet “In­vent­ing Uta­maro” leaves many mys­ter­ies un­re­solved, in­clud­ing the rid­dle of the artist’s iden­tity. Al­most noth­ing is known about his life other than the le­gend of his ex­per­tise with the fe­male form and psy­che. A noted film

about him, Kenji Mi­zoguchi’s 1946 “Five Women Around Uta­maro,” is al­most all fic­tion.

The paint­ings show groups of el­e­gant women, sump­tu­ously at­tired and posed in tea­houses, framed by iconic na­ture: snow, moon and flower, the three sym­bols of fleet­ing beauty ex­tolled in a 9th-cen­tury Chi­nese poem. The moon glim­mers over Edo (now Tokyo) bay in “Shi­na­gawa”; snow nes­tles on tree branches in the court­yard of “Fuk­a­gawa”; and cherry blos­soms abound out­side the two-tiered pav­il­ion in “Yoshi­wara.”

The paint­ings de­pict “ukiyo,” the “float­ing world” of ephemeral plea­sures. Yet one de­light goes unil­lus­trated: sex. Yoshi­wara was Edo’s li­censed brothel dis­trict; Shi­na­gawa and Fuk­a­gawa, stops on the way out of town, had tea­houses where more than tea was served. That th­ese were not re­ally such glam­orous places is re­vealed in the show’s fi­nal gallery, which ac­knowl­edges Yoshi­wara’s grim re­al­ity.

There are al­most no men in the paint­ings, which are in the style known as ukiyo-e. (“E” means “pic­ture.”) A few small boys ap­pear, and in “Shi­na­gawa” a male pres­ence broods, just a shadow be­hind a cur­tain. In re­al­ity, of course, such places would have not ex­isted if not for men. But for such de­pic­tions of broth­els and cour­te­sans, men were the au­di­ence, not the sub­ject. (Also avail­able were ex­plic­itly erotic prints, a few mild ex­am­ples of which are shown here.)

Ukiyo-e por­trays women who were ide­al­ized in many ways, and Uta­maro de­vised much of the par­a­digm. He’s known for im­prob­a­bly wil­lowy sub­jects, with ob­long heads and elon­gated necks. In­cluded in the show is a 1774 Dutch anatomy book that in­flu­enced Ja­panese artists in an era when their coun­try was of­fi­cially closed to the West. It turns out that the per­fect Ja­panese beauty had some Euro­pean DNA.

Uta­maro’s de­pic­tions weren’t re­ally a science project, but they were of­ten con­sid­ered of a piece with his cat­a­logues of flow­ers, in­sects and shells, a few of which are dis­played here. Trans­planted to Europe, his art helped in­spire the im­pres­sion­ists, art nou­veau and — an­other artist well rep­re­sented in the Freer — James Whistler.

Many ukiyo-e works went to Europe in the late 19th cen­tury be­cause they were be­ing sold off by Bud­dhist tem­ples, then be­ing sup­pressed by the Ja­panese gov­ern­ment. The Parisian vogue for ukiyo-e prob­a­bly saved some pieces from be­ing de­stroyed by Tokyo’s cat­a­clysmic 1923 fire or by bomb­ings dur­ing World War II.

Af­ter Uta­maro’s time, pic­turesque land­scapes be­came a ma­jor fo­cus of such noted ukiyo-e artists as Kat­sushika Hoku­sai (some of whose work is in this show). But th­ese paint­ings fo­cus on the women, in­ter­pos­ing na­ture around them. This is some­times done slyly. While “Shi­na­gawa” fea­tures an ac­tual view as its back­drop, the other two pic­tures place artis­tic de­pic­tions of scenery at the rear of the com­po­si­tion: a scroll paint­ing of Mount Fuji in “Fuk­a­gawa,” a screen paint­ing of a gar­den in “Yoshi­wara.”

In this show, “Moon at Shi­na­gawa” hangs at the cen­ter. It’s ar­guably the best of the three, and the least busy. There are fewer fig­ures and a sense of open­ness the others lack. Where “Yoshi­wara” is over­loaded with gold leaf, “Shi­na­gawa’s” gilt is sub­tly dabbed in the sky.

“Shi­na­gawa” also hap­pens to be the one that lives in Wash­ing­ton. It was bought by Charles Lang Freer in 1903 and, un­der the terms of his be­quest, can­not travel. “Yoshi­wara” (which be­longs to Con­necti­cut’s Wadsworth Atheneum Mu­seum of Art) and “Fuk­a­gawa” will be ex­hib­ited else­where.

The paint­ings were last shown to­gether at a tem­ple in Tochigi, a city north­east of Tokyo that was home to Zenno Ihei, the wealthy mer­chant who prob­a­bly com­mis­cer­tainly sioned them. In each pic­ture, a woman wears a gar­ment that in­cludes the Zenno clan’s crest, which Ulak calls “a fas­ci­nat­ing lit­tle clue.”

What’s miss­ing from all three paint­ings is Uta­maro’s sig­na­ture. They were likely pro­duced by a work­shop, not a sin­gle artist, and “are at­trib­uted to Uta­maro on the ba­sis of style,” Davis ex­plains.

In th­ese three master­works, the hand of the mas­ter can­not be defini­tively cer­ti­fied. It’s an­other way “the man who loved women” re­mains elu­sive.


“Cherry Blos­soms at Yoshi­wara” is one of three Uta­maro mas­ter­pieces de­pict­ing the “float­ing world” of broth­els in Tokyo more than two cen­turies ago. An ex­hi­bi­tion at the Sack­ler Gallery ex­plores the his­tor­i­cal con­text of the works, though it fails to solve the puz­zle of the artist’s iden­tity.


The paint­ings show el­e­gant women, sump­tu­ously at­tired and posed in tea­houses, framed by iconic na­ture. “Snow at Fuk­a­gawa,” top, fea­tures a scroll paint­ing of Mount Fuji in the back­ground. “Moon at Shi­na­gawa,” above, was bought by Charles Lang Freer in 1903, and un­der the terms of his be­quest can­not leave Wash­ing­ton.


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