Art Review: Eroticism Restrained; 'The Women of Shin Hanga' Depicts a Time of Change

Thursday, May 09, 2013
"The Women of Shin Hanga,” the exhibition of Japanese woodblock prints at the Hood Museum of Art through July 28, cuts across a broad swath of territory: the modernization of Japan, the gradual shift in the role of women, the business of commercial print-making and the complex techniques artists used to make the prints.

But at its heart the show centers on art’s most charged relationship: the connection between the artist and the model, and the transference of that intimacy to the viewer.

The prints come from the collection of Judith and Joseph Barker, a Dartmouth graduate. The show is divided into two parts: the prints from the 18th and 19th centuries known as ukiyo-e, or the Floating World, and shin hanga, or “new prints” that date from the early 20th century to the post-war period.

Shin hanga owes its existence to a publisher and art dealer named Watanabe Shozaburo (1885-1962) who saw the market for a new kind of ukiyo-e, one that drew on the veneration of the culture of old Japan, before the importation of Western mores and technology.

So the first shin hanga, produced in the 1910s, capitalized on the nostalgia for ukiyo-e, with its depictions of celebrated actors and geishas. The category reserved for portraits of geishas was called bijinga, and the bijinga comprised numerous stock scenes of geishas at their bath or dressing tables, holding fans or putting on make-up.

Many of the ukiyo-e and shin hanga here share a mood of beautiful, aching languor, a luxuriating in melancholy for which there really is no artistic equivalent in this country, with the exception of poetry, given that our national temperament tends to shake off melancholy the way a dog briskly shakes off water. The geishas are creatures of desire, but whether the desire is theirs or ours is left enigmatic.

Japanese erotica was as frank as any illustrated Kama Sutra. But the tenor of these prints is one of restraint, not explicit detail. The 1849-1850 triptych Enjoying the Evening Cool in the Eastern Capital, its mundane title suggesting nothing more than a night out in summer, shows boats jostling on the Sumida river with the waterfront in the background. The women in the boats appear, at first, to be city dwellers seeking relief from the heat on the water.

That they are prostitutes at work is signalled by the rolls of tissue they clutch in their hands, and by the bamboo blinds on top of the boat, which could be rolled down to the gunwales to ensure privacy. This would have been understood immediately by the Japanese audience but the details are relatively discreet; they’re not hidden but neither are they brazen.

By the time we arrive at the shin hanga of the early 20th century, the viewer’s relationship to the women is more direct than it is in the ukiyo-e. The women’s faces are seen in a tighter, almost cinematic, close-up. The mood is, for the most part, anticipatory rather than retrospective; many of the geishas are shown preparing for the arrival of a man by putting on make-up, dressing or bathing.

Their gazes are oblique and distant, the eroticism is veiled by the fall of a kimono across the breast or the hip, and sensuality is conveyed discreetly. There’s a tension between what we don’t see, and what we imagine, which is infinitely more provocative than the grinding mechanics of pornography. These moments give the women a unique power, the strength that comes from withholding their innermost thoughts from the prying eyes of both artist and viewer.

For all the elegance of the shin hanga, though, they lack the piercing psychological insights of a Manet or Velasquez, with the exception of an artist named Kitano Tsunetomi, whose women have a vitality that leaps out at you. Drawn with what seems to be an unbroken line, they have a freshness and spontaneity that one associates with drawings or watercolor.

The women aren’t completely without personality, but, in contrast to the most revelatory Western portraiture, their faces don’t bear the marks of living. No vivid expressions of love, fear, despair, no wrinkles or blemishes, only faint traces of animation in the eyes. It’s the way they hold themselves, and the rich patterns, luxurious material and motifs woven into their kimonos and robes, that gives us clues to who they are, and their culture.

The arrangements of their hair, whether it hangs loose in a rippling waterfall or is carefully and tightly pinned to the head, or the nape of the neck, reveal their moods, their cares, perhaps their hopes.

It’s not entirely frivolous to say that the hair is the key to reading the women: I thought of the folk tale Black Hair, one of a number of ghost stories collected by the writer Lafcadio Hearn in Japan during the 1890s, and how the hair of the woman in that story is emblematic of both love and its decay.

There are more than a few stand-outs in the exhibition, but I was particularly taken with the Twelve Views of Tokyo by Ishii Hakutei, which were executed between 1914 and 1917. In each, a geisha is shown sitting or standing in front of an inset postcard or window view of one of the city’s districts, on the verge of modernization. The implication is clear: the unprepossessing factories, Western-style buildings and telephone wires beginning to crowd out the tea houses and traditional architecture, also signal the beginning of the end of the geisha era.

The irony of Ito Shinsui’s Second Series of Modern Beauties: Snowstorm is that, unless you happen to look at the date, 1932, there’s nothing modern about the print. A woman is caught in a flurry of snow, which Shinsui brilliantly evokes through white flecks that dot the scene. The woman, dressed in traditional kimono, holding a parasol, head inclined, seems to struggle against wind-driven snow, and perhaps against the brute force of modernism itself.

You can see why the angle that Shinsui used, looking down at the woman from above and slightly from the side, was such an influence on artists like Van Gogh and Monet when they first saw Japanese art, during a Hokusai-like Great Wave of 19th century fervor for what was called Japonisme. The slanting diagonals, the flat surface rather than the Western depth of space, the arresting arrangements of their landscapes found their way into the works of Toulouse-Lautrec and Van Gogh. The fertilization worked both ways: some of the shin hanga prints of women bathing or dressing owe an obvious debt to nudes by Renoir or Degas.

I confess that by the time the exhibition worked its way toward the 1940s and 1950s, the allure of the shin hanga began to wear thin. The post-war shin hanga have a blinding, brilliant visual pop, but they teeter on the edge of kitsch, and the delicate poignancy and charm of the early works disappears. The shin hanga were at their peak in the 1910s and 1920s, and their virtue is that they exemplify their time, and none other.

Nicola Smith can be reached at

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