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Adachi's Pick -Masterpiece of Ukiyo-e-
Kitagawa Utamaro "Mosquito Net" -- Part 2

April 30, 2021

Adachi's Pick -Masterpiece of Ukiyo-e-
Kitagawa Utamaro "Mosquito Net" -- Part 2

In the second installment of the series "Adachi's Pick -- Masterpiece of Ukiyo-e," we are featuring the masterpiece "Mosquito Net" by Kitagawa Utamaro. In Part 1, we looked into the unique appeal of Utamaro's portraits of beautiful women (bijinga) and the reasons behind the choice of the mosquito net as a prop.

In Part 2, we will focus on the bijinga revolution brought to the world of ukiyo-e in Edo by Kitagawa Utamaro, the master of bijinga, and Tsutaya Juzaburo, the publisher who brought him into the limelight.

Kitagawa Utamaro"Mosquito Net"

■ Tsutaya Juzaburo, Publisher & Shrewd Producer

Utamaro's masterpiece "Mosquito Net" was published by Tsutaya Juzaburo (aka "Tsutaju"). A large number of the works of Utamaro were produced by Tsutaya, including many of Utamaro's most important works.

So what kind of man was the publisher Tsutaya Juzaburo?
According to records, Tsutaya Juzaburo was born in Yoshiwara in 1750, about three years before Utamaro. From around 1774, he was involved in the publishing and sales of a guidebook to the famous red-light district entitled "A guide to the Yoshiwara licensed quarter" and he went on to establish a new business style and become a prominent publisher in Edo. Tsutaju did not limit himself to publishing and sales. He made bold changes to "A guide to the Yoshiwara licensed quarter" to make the publication more entertaining for readers and asked popular authors to write prefaces. He went beyond the bounds of publishing and took on various projects, much like a modern-day producer. Tsutaju provided a breath of fresh air to the publishing world and produced one hit after another from his headquarters in Yoshiwara. In 1783, he opened a new store in Nihonbashi and emerged as a power to be reckoned with in the publishing world.

■ The Birth of Kitagawa Utamaro, Master of Bijinga
It was Tsutaju who set his eyes on Kitagawa Utamaro (1753? -1806) as a new generation artist.
The name Utamaro became widely known when he drew illustrations for kyoka-bon (books of humorous poems) that Tsutaya published from around 1788. Kyoka-bon were popular at the time, and Tsutaya published collections of poems with pictures of wildlife entitled "Ehon mushi erami (Picture Book of Selected Insects)," "Shiohi no tsuto (Gifts from the Ebb Tide)" and "Momochi dori (Myriad Birds)." Utamaro's illustrations were realistic representations of the subjects, completely different from the portraits of beautiful women (bijinga) Utamaro is known for today, but they demonstrated Utamaro's outstanding skills as an artist.
Kitagawa Utamaro Momochidori (Myriad Birds) "Hawk and Shrike"

■ Originator of "Okubi-e," Portraits Focusing on the Upper Half of a Woman's Body

After the success of the illustrations for kyoka-bon published by Tsutaya, Utamaro teamed up with Tsutaju to release numerous bijinga. In particular, the type of ukiyo-e called okubi-e became a sensation in Edo. Okubi-e focused on the upper half of the subject's body. Utamaro and Tsutaju took this format, which was previously used in yakusha-e (pictures of kabuki actors) and applied it to bijinga. Focusing on the upper body made the woman's face more prominent. Utamaro took advantage of the format to capture the inner beauty and personalities of each woman in his portraits. Prior to this time, artists' ideals of feminine beauty were reflected in the portraits. In contrast, Utamaro's bijinga were portraits of real women.

  Kitagawa Utamaro
"Pensive Love"

<"Pensive Love" (from the series "Selected Poems on the Theme of Love") shows a woman resting her chin on her hand, lost in thought.>
  Kitagawa Utamaro

<"Kashi" (from the series "Five Shades of Ink in the Licensed Quarter" ) depicts a seemingly strong-minded prostitute.>
  Kitagawa Utamaro
"Okita of Naniwaya"

<"Okita of Naniwaya" (from the series "Six Famous Beauties") portrays a hospitable waitress at the teahouse Naniwaya.>

Moreover, as the women's facial features were depicted in more detail, great precision was required to carve the facial features and the edge of the hair on the forehead. Therefore, Utamaro's works contributed to the advancement of woodcut print production techniques.  
↑Click for zoom

■ Numerous Hits Produced in the Kansei Reforms Era

However, these were the days of the Kansei era (1789-1801), when a series of conservative measures were promoted. People were urged to live frugally, public morals were strictly enforced, and restrictions were placed on entertainment, including the publishing industry. Even in such times, Tsutaju and Utamaro went against the shogunate's policies and continued to explore ways to make beautiful portraits of women, opening up new possibilities for bijinga.

↑Click for zoom   One new invention was bijinga with shining backdrops created by applying kira (mica) to the surface. In response to government orders to make ukiyo-e more plain, Tsutaju and Utamaro came up with the idea of not drawing anything in the background and applying mica powder to create a shiny finish instead.

  Kitagawa Utamaro
"Dojoji Dancer"

<"Dojoji Dancer" (from the series "Contemporary Dancers") shows a beautiful young dancer performing the kabuki dance "Musume Dojoji.">
<"Takashimaya Ohisa" portrays a waitress at the teahouse Takashimaya, one of the "Three Beauties of the Kansei Era.">
  Kitagawa Utamaro
"Girl Blowing a Glass Toy"

<"Girl Blowing a Glass Toy" (from the series "Ten Physiognomic Aspects of Women") features a youthful girl wearing a long-sleeved kimono with a checkered pattern, which was in vogue at the time.>

The technique called kirabiki made Utamaro's bijinga a great hit among the people of Edo.
In addition to kira backgrounds, Utamaro invented a variety of new methods through trial and error and in response to the government restrictions. He looked at women through translucent materials to bring out their beauty, such as in the featured masterpiece "Mosquito Net," and used karazuri embossing to convey the softness of a woman's complexion.

↓Click for zoom
<Applying the mica powder>
  <Expression with translucent materials>   <Using Karazuri embossing printing for the outline of women's face>

He employed such methods in an attempt to capture the true essence of various women who exist in the real world. The 12-part series "The Twelve Hours in the Yoshiwara" showed a day in the life of courtesans in the red-light district by taking a "snapshot" once every two hours. It was highly regarded as a work that not only captures the enchanting atmosphere of the district but also gives a glimpse of the true face of the women working there. Utamaro was able to create this series thanks to Tsutaju, who was very familiar with Yoshiwara.

<"Inside and Outside the Mosquito Net" shows a young couple facing each other with a mosquito net in between. The mosquito net is printed using two separate woodblocks, one with the vertical lines and the other with the horizontal lines.>
Kitagawa Utamaro
"The Hour of the Sheep(2pm)"

<"The Hour of the Sheep (2 pm)" (from the series "A Sundial of Maidens") shows town girls at two in the afternoon. The outline of her face is printed without any color applied to the woodblock (karazuri embossing).>
Kitagawa Utamaro
"The Hour of the Ox (2am)"

<"The Hour of the Ox (2 am)" (from the series "The Twelve Hours in the Yoshiwara") shows a prostitute going to the restroom at two in the morning. It gives a rare view of the true face of a woman in Yoshiwara.>

■ The Last Days of Tsutaya and Utamaro

In 1791, however, the shogunate convicted Tsutaya for publishing multiple illegal materials and confiscated half of his estate. After this setback, Tsutaya promoted the enigmatic artist Toshusai Sharaku and made other attempts to revive his business but succumbed to a disease in 1797.

Toshusai Sharaku
"The Actor Ichikawa Ebizo as Takemura Sadanoshin"

After the passing of Tsutaju, Utamaro continued to produce numerous bijinga as an artist, but in 1804, he was sentenced to 50 days of home arrest in handcuffs over paintings in which he depicted forbidden subjects. His health deteriorated, and he died in despair two years later.

Publisher Tsutaya Juzaburo and artist Kitagawa Utamaro were born around the same time and their lives came to a similar end. However, the world of ukiyo-e and bijinga greatly evolved thanks to the outstanding work of these two men. As the relationship between Tsutaju and Utamaro demonstrates, publishers in the Edo Period played an important role, much like today's producers. The planned projects, selected artists and worked as a coordinator for artists, carvers and printers, and were deeply involved in all stages of the publishing process. Without Tsutaya Juzaburo, the world would not have known Kitagawa Utamaro, the master of bijinga. Tsutaju and Utamaro were united as adventurers and revolutionaries in the world of ukiyo-e.

Artist - Utamaro:Kitagawa Utamaro "The Chushingura Travestied by Today's Great Beauties" 18C TOKYO NATIONAL MUSEUM
Source: ColBase

In Part 2 of "Adachi's Pick -- Masterpiece of Ukiyo-e," we looked at Kitagawa Utamaro's "Mosquito Net" and the collaboration between bijinga master Kitagawa Utamaro and the highly competent publisher Tsutaya Juzaburo. Ukiyo-e would not have flourished during the Edo Period if not for the publishers. Planning projects, selecting the most suitable artists, carvers and printers, and coordinating all aspects of the publication, the publishers of the Edo Period were like modern-day producers. We hope this will serve as an opportunity to take the standpoint of the publisher when looking at the works of Utamaro.

  ■ Related Products
Kitagawa Utamaro
"Pensive Love"
Kitagawa Utamaro
"Girl Blowing a Glass Toy"


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