Utamaro: Hymn to Beauty : Art Gallery of NSW

Utamaro: Hymn to Beauty
Art Gallery of New South Wales, May 2010

Enjoyment and scholarship always go hand in hand at the AGNSW’s ever popular seminar days. International scholar Associate Professor Julie Nelson Davis, University of Pennsylvania, delighted the large audience with her candid and indepth study of Utamaro’s well-known series ‘The 10 Physiognomies of Women’. Perhaps uncertain of an Australian audience’s reaction to risqué content, she noticeably relaxed when there was immediate laughter at an ambiguous comment. From then on she confidently presented her hypothesis that this series was a metaphorical reference to implicitly understood sexual types presented in the works of 18th century artist and author Santo Kyoden, a contemporary and known associate of artist Utamaro.

The prints are a record of the fashions of the times and Associate Professor Toby Slade from the University of Tokyo took us on a fascinating tour of fashion’s ‘signals: Stripes/parallel lines on the kimono
never meet, and go on forever, this being a metaphor for flirtation (never consummating). Recall the bare feet of the women of ukiyoe? Curled toes were seen as symbolic of passion and courtesans were forbidden to wear tabi.

The world of ukiyo-e is that of the Yoshiwara pleasure quarters, of courtesans and actors. Graphically attractive and always highly regarded by Western collectors, a study of the symbolism, metaphors and visual clues rife in ukiyo-e prints is a journey into an elaborately codified ‘outsider’ culture of Edo Japan.

Catalogue at the AGNSW shop highly recommended.