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Adachi's Pick -Masterpiece of Ukiyo-e-
Kitagawa Utamaro "Mosquito Net" -- Part 1

April 17, 2021

Adachi's Pick -Masterpiece of Ukiyo-e-
Kitagawa Utamaro "Mosquito Net" -- Part 1

"Adachi's Pick -- Masterpiece of Ukiyo-e" is a series of articles where we feature one ukiyo-e artist and his work with background information about how the artist's prints were produced.

The second selection in the series is a work by the renowned master of bijinga (portraits of beautiful women) entitled "Mosquito Net (kaya)" from the series "Model Young Women Woven in Mist (Kasumi-ori musume hinagata)." Mosquito nets are fine nets hung to keep mosquitoes away and were a summer feature in these times before screen doors.
This masterpiece portrays two beauties facing each other with a mosquito net in between. Through this work, which represents all the hallmarks of the works of Utamaro, we looked at the unique and intriguing characteristics of the artist Kitagawa Utamaro who produced numerous bijinga masterpieces.

We will feature the masterpiece "Mosquito Net" in two parts. In Part 1, we will explore the objectives and the appeals of "Mosquito Net" as well as aspects of the production process.

Kitagawa Utamaro"Mosquito Net"

■ Kitagawa Utamaro, Master Portrayer of Beautiful Women

Kitagawa Utamaro (1753?-1806) is an ukiyo-e artist who lived during the Edo Period. From a young age, he studied under Toriyama Sekien and gained popularity in the latter part of the 18th century as a master of expressive bijinga.

Utamaro employed a wide variety of techniques to capture the beauty of women in his works. He applied a format called okubi-e (portraits showing only the head or the head and upper torso), which was previously used in yakusha-e (woodcut prints of kabuki actors), to bijinga in an effort to portray the unique facial features and expressions of each woman.

Kitagawa Utamaro"Three Favorite Beauties
<The different facial features of three
women portrayed by Utamaro>

■ Looking at Beautiful Women Through Translucent Materials

  Utamaro's "Mosquito Net" is part of a series called "Model Young Women Woven in Mist (Kasumi-ori musume hinagata)" published by Tsutaya Juzaburo, a prominent publisher of the Edo Period.
"Kasumi-ori (woven in mist)" is believed to be a word coined by Tsutaya or Utamaro and implies that the women are seen through different see-through materials, as in a mist.

In addition to "Mosquito Net," two other works titled "Summer Clothing (Natsu Isho)" and "Reed Screen (Sudare)" are included in the series, and all place beautiful women on the two sides of a thin, translucent material.
Utamaro took on this work around 1794-1795, at the height of his career as an artist. It was produced around the same time as "Girl Blowing a Glass Toy," which is regarded as one of his most important works.

"Mosquito Net" shows the upper body of two women, one in the front and one behind the mosquito net. They are facing each other and seem to be conversing through the mosquito net. The woman in the front is holding kaishi (folded pieces of Japanese paper), perhaps having returned from the restroom. The woman inside the mosquito net has her hair tied up and looks like she is getting ready for bed. The relaxed mood suggests that the two have a friendly relationship. The scene gives a glimpse of how women of the time got ready for bed on a hot summer night.

In the series "Model Young Women Woven in Mist," Utamaro portrays the beauty of women that appears when seen through a thin veil. The obscured view of the person on the other side of the translucent material ignites the desire to get a clearer view. The yearning to learn about the woman makes her look more alluring and beautiful. The mosquito net, the title of this piece, is a prop used to amplify the beauty of the woman behind it.

<Carving & Printing Methods to Represent the Mosquito Net>

When carving bijinga, the face and hair are considered to be the most technically challenging. Ukiyo-e woodcut prints are produced through "relief printing," a process consisting of carving out a printing surface in such a way that all that remains of the original surface is the design to be printed. Only top-class artisans can take on the intricate carving necessary for the head section.

In particular, the excellent skill of a master carver was manifested in the very fine lines carved to show the edge of a person's hair on the forehead. This is called "kebori (hairline carving)," and it is said there were artisans that specialized in this process during the Edo Period.

In Utamaro's "Mosquito Net," there is another section that showcases the masterful skills of the carver -- the mosquito net itself.
How is the translucent nature of the coarse-meshed net conveyed? A magnified view of the mosquito net in front of the woman shows that there are very fine vertical and horizontal lines. Just like the actual mosquito net, vertical and horizontal lines create a mesh to depict the see-through material.

To create a three-dimensional effect, the mosquito net is printed using two separate woodblocks, one with the vertical lines and the other with the horizontal lines. The carved lines are only 0.4 mm in width. The countless thin, straight lines are carved perfectly by the skillful carver.

The skilled carver, Kishi Chikura of The Adachi is showing the carving of a long thin line which is one of the highest techniques of the carver. This is the block for Utamaro's "Mosquito Net" from the series of "Model Young Women Woven in Mist (Kasumi-ori musume hinagata)" which is well known for the expression of the mesh of a mosquito net. To express the mesh net, two blocks are carved (Vertical lines and horizontal lines) and printed separately.

The fine lines of the mosquito net present an opportunity for the printer's skills to shine as well. Even with the same woodblock, the shade and thickness of the lines can vary greatly depending on the pressure that is applied. With the wrong amount of pressure, blobs of paint can form, or the lines may become too thick, completely changing the impression of the final print. A highly skilled printer usually produces around 100 identical prints.
Moreover, placing a translucent material in front of a person involves methods that are unique to traditional woodcut prints. In ukiyo-e, water-based colors are pressed into the fibers of the Japanese paper (washi) as colors are printed one over the other. These colors, unlike opaque oil colors, have a unique characteristic. The color underneath shows through even when another color is applied on top. In ukiyo-e prints, it is possible to create a composition in which the person in the back can be seen through a translucent material by layering translucent colors.

■ Beautiful Women with Colorful Personalities

Now let's take a look at the beautiful women portrayed. In the world of bijinga, each artist had their own ideal of what a beautiful woman should look like and applied this "stereotypical beauty" to all of their models. However, Utamaro was an artist who broke away from such conventional rules.

Compared to the "stereotypical beauty" of the times, Utamaro produced bijinga featuring women with more ample bodies and modern physiques. The plumpness of the physical features conveys an air of seductive charm. On a hot and humid summer day, a woman puts a hand over her bosom, trying to cool off. Such a gesture makes one feel a languorous, voluptuous grace.  

  Utamaro also closes up on the loveliness of the nape of a woman's neck in some of his works. "Beauty in Front of Mirror (Eri-Oshiroi)" portrays a woman looking at a mirror as she puts make-up on her neck. Such sensuality could not be found in times of "stereotypical beauty" and is a trademark of Utamaro.

Kitagawa Utamaro"Woman Powdering her Neck"

The models that artists used in the genre of bijinga were often prostitutes and geisha girls.
However, Utamaro did not only portray beauties in the famous red-light district of Yoshiwara. He created portraits of women of all generations and social classes, from pretty young waitresses at teahouses to high-class courtesans. He also gave detailed character traits to all of his models and showed their emotions through subtle gestures and facial expressions. Utamaro gave a loveable personality to the main character in his artwork and portrayed them as real human beings.
Kitagawa Utamaro
"Okita of Naniwaya
Serving a Cup of Tea

< "Okita of Naniwaya" portrays a teahouse waitress reputed to be a great beauty>
  Kitagawa Utamaro「Hair Dressing
<"Twelve Kinds of Women's Handiworks - Hair Dressing" shows a woman working as a hairdresser>

The two women in "Mosquito Net" have contrasting characteristics as well. The one in the front looks like a smart and collected woman, and the other seems gentle and sweet.

We hope you enjoyed this second installment of the series "Adachi's Pick -- Masterpiece of Ukiyo-e" featuring "Mosquito Net" by Kitagawa Utamaro. In Part 1, we talked about the unique appeal of Utamaro as reflected in this work. In Part 2, we will introduce the methods Utamaro invented to capture the beauty of women and look into the story of how they were born. Stay tuned!

  ■ Related Products
  Kitagawa Utamaro
"Woman Powdering
her Neck
  Kitagawa Utamaro
"Three Favorite
  Kitagawa Utamaro
Hair Dressing

  Works with karazuri embossing   Works with mosquito nets and see-through effects  
  Works published by Tsutaya   Works with mica shiny backgrounds  

Kitagawa Utamaro's Print >>