Woman Writing

Woman Writing, Kitagawa Utamaro

Woman Writing comes from a series by Kitagawa Utamaro (1753 – 1806) entitled Ten Types of Women’s Physiognomies (1792–1793).  Utamaro was a master of Japanese woodblock prints or ukiyo-e.  While Utamaro is considered one of the greatest ukiyo-e artists of all time, very little is known about the artist himself.  This postcard comes from the Philadelphia Museum of Art thanks to Dan.  One of the reasons that museums today have such rich collections of ukiyo-e was their ability to be mass-produced.  First popularized in the Edo period, ukiyo-e, as prints, were available to a wide audience and not simply the wealthy elite.   Art for the masses if you will.  This print could be classified as a “bijinga” ie an ukiyo-e (or other Japanese art) dealing with beautiful women.  Ukiyo-e itself literally means “pictures of the floating world.”  I think there is something poetic about this description and how it implies a world of fleeting pleasures and momentary flashes of beauty.  Originally, city life and entertainers were the main subject matters for the wood prints although landscapes became popular over time.  In the mid-19th century, ukiyo-e reached Europe where they became a major source of inspiration to the Impressionists including Monet and Toulouse-Lautrec.  Ironically enough, they became popular in Europe at a time when in Japan they were considered worthless and good only for packing material.  Here in France, this Japanese influence on art was so strong that it even has its own term “Japonisme.”  Asian influence, in general, is significant in 19th century European art of all types from painting to theatre to opera.  I have to admit that my first thought when I saw this postcard was a bit more 20th century ie Queen Amidala, her hair and her costumes in Star Wars (and that doesn’t even touch the tip of the iceberg in terms of Japanese influences in the series)!  Japanese influence in the arts continues today, just ask George Lucas! 

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