We are calling this show Women of the Drowning World, because the way in which women were pictured after 1810 changed so dramatically… the shape of ‘bijin-ga’ (awful word and awful transliteration) no longer fit the bold and realist vision of the leading artists such as Kuniyoshi. Alex Faulkner, creative director at the gallery, coined the phrase dekiyo-e ('drowning world') in 2015 in order to draw attention to this distinctive change in woodblock prints. Those gracile delicate women of Utamaro had evaporated from the eternal waters of the floating world… washed away to the end of the world like the gourd and the blossoms of Asai Ryoi;
Living only for the moment, turning our full attention to the pleasures of the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms and the maple leaves; singing songs, drinking wine, diverting ourselves in just floating, floating; refusing to be disheartened, like a gourd floating along with the river current: this is what we call the floating world...
— Asai Ryoi (Images from the Floating World.)
Instead, economic uncertainty, urbanisation, overcrowding, famine and political unrest allowed for a new kind of popular culture. This was the brasher and more vulgar culture of the cheap brothel as opposed to the idea of the teahouse; this was the loud and garish colours of the kabuki-za as against the etiolated symbolism of the Noh theatre. Henceforth, females would be depicted in the shape of a well fed, urban woman. She would be washing her hair, her armpits or her clothes. She would be bored, or idle, or busy and had departed the ‘poetic’ ideal of the eighteenth century. If all that sounds familiar then it is unsurprising: these ideas… these colours, subjects, shapes, compositions and styles... found their place in the revolutionary art of the realists, the impressionists and the modernists of western Europe a half century later. Here then is Kunisada’s superb Yokkaichi, from the series Fifty-three Parallels for the Tokaido, the very image of the ordinary townswoman. Or else the subtly subversive print of Mishima Station, from the series Scenes of Famous Places Along the Tokaido Road also by Kunisada which shows prostitutes washing in the street as the despised Shogun’s procession passes in the background!
It’s not all kitchen sink and gritty realism. Some artists, notably Kuniyoshi, used strong women from history as inspiration for the new age. In this selection we are showing for example The Female Bandit Kijin no Omatsu by Kunisada from 1851 and Kuniyoshi’s Hangaku-jo from the series, Biographies of Wise Women and Virtuous Wives of 1842, both print exemplars of the noble, strong and virtuous woman.
The further genre where women were very visible was in the loud world of kabuki theatre… they were not literally visible since the authorities prevented female kabuki actors, but the roles that were written for the onnagata, the impersonators were again designed to be valiant, strong and on the whole extrovert. We are showing Kunichika’s striking portrait of Onoe Kikugoro V as Onibaba, The Hag of Adachi Moor… an early psychotic female serial killer. I recommend also a superb Kuniyoshi triptych of the Taira Clan preparing for war; the women here are in embroidered robes serving water from dippers; and the moving Kuniyoshi of Hotoke Gozen, from Stories of Wise Women and Faithful Wives of 1841 with the tragic poem of female abandonment written on a paper screen…
Whether fresh and green
or in sere and yellow leaf,
Grasses of the field,
When the autumn comes at length,
Meet with the same hapless fate.
A reminder that whilst woodblock artists were seeing women in a different light, the actuality was certainly quite different. There are many prints here for all pockets.
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