Featuring over 80 prints from the collection of the Asian Art Museum, National Museums in Berlin, this exhibition showcases the art of Kitagawa Utamaro (1753?-1806), one of the most representative artists of the 'images of the floating world' (ukiyo-e) in the late 18th century, often referred to as the golden age of Japanese woodblock prints.
Trained in the orthodox painting style of the Kano school, Utamaro’s talent was soon discovered by Tsutaya Jûzaburô, an influential and astute ukiyo-e publisher. Under Tsutaya's guidance, Utamaro rose quickly, achieving his first critical acclaim and commercial success with vibrant illustrations for sumptuously printed poetry anthologies and erotic books in the late 1780s. When this type of publication was censored in the early 1790s, Tsutaya and Utamaro shifted their activity to the profitable genre of 'pictures of beautiful women' (bijinga). By applying the bust or half-length format (ôkubi-e), Utamaro revolutionised the way women were portrayed in Japanese visual arts. The close-up view enabled him to capture a fleeting facial expression and mood and imbue his subjects with a psychological depth.
About one third of the 2000 authenticated designs by Utamaro deals with subjects related to the Yoshiwara, the licensed pleasure quarters of Edo (today's Tokyo), including numerous portraits of its courtesans, their teenage attendants and child servants. Presented as icons of beauty and fashion trendsetters, these alluring images acted as advertisements for the women, for the establishments with which they were affiliated, and ultimately also for the artist. By acquiring these prints, the public, most of whom could hardly ever afford the company of such 'stars', could indulge in the illusion of being part of this exclusive world.
The exhibition's title takes its inspiration from the poem of the same name by Charles Baudelaire. Baudelaire's adoration of beauty might well find resonance with viewers of Utamaro's tantalising images of beautiful women.
Art Gallery of New South Wales Website