Bijin-ga: Beauties of the Floating World
During the Edo period (1603-1868), a peaceful and prosperous time for Japan, a strong and active print culture was creating woodblock prints known as ukiyo-e. During the medieval period (1185-1573) the term ukiyo meant ‘a condition of impermanence created by daily life and its desires’. Taken alone, uki translates to ‘suffering’ while yo means ‘world’ and e (pronounced “eh”) means ‘picture’. At the turn of the 17th century the meaning of uki changed, translating instead to ‘floating’, and ukiyo-e then became known as ‘pictures of the floating world’. This change in language glorified life’s transient pleasures: those of fleeting feelings and the lust of parties, fashion and elicit passions. Ukiyo-e were used to promote the latest fashions for both men and women, as well as a marketing tool for courtesans and their brothels. The woodblock prints spotlit celebrities including kabuki actors, courtesans and geishas, and over time subject matter broadened to encompass depictions of landscapes and nature. One of the most popular subjects was ‘beautiful people’ or in Japanese bijin-ga, which depicted both men and women.
Kitagawa Utamaro was universally considered the foremost artist for depictions of bijin-ga. His woodblock prints enforced a stereotype of beauty and an idealised image of women with a large head, long slender neck, and small shoulders and hands. He rose to prominence in the early 1790s and took the hari (‘dash and independent spirit’) and iki (‘chic sex appeal’) established by his predecessors to a new level. This is exemplified in Utamaro’s Woman reading a letter (Fumi yomu onna) from the series Ten classes of women’s physiognomy, where the artist attempts to reveal different emotions and facets of highly desirable women. Typical bijin-ga portraits do not depict the subject’s individual personality. Instead the women are seemingly caught in action, in a moment of thought and unaware they are being watched and objectified. Despite these stereotypical depictions, the high-ranking courtesans and public figures represented in works such as these were educated, highly intellectual and witty women.
Flinders University Museum of Art boasts a small collection of bijin-ga woodblock prints by Utamaro Kitagawa and many of his contemporaries. The five works presented here were generously donated to FUMA by avid collector Miss Marion Elizabeth Wharmby. Over a twenty-year period from 1971 until her death in 1991, Miss Wharmby bequeathed her print collection to Flinders University. Totalling over 600 works on paper, the Wharmby collection features works from across the globe including works by indigenous artists from Australia, Papua New Guinea, North America and Africa, Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints, British and European masters and examples of colonial and 20th century Australian art.
Flinders University students and staff can explore Miss Marion Elizabeth Wharmby’s bequest via Flinders University Museum of Art’s Online Collections Catalogue.