Japan • 1753−1806
Kitagawa Utamaro (ca. 1753 - October 31, 1806, Edo) - Japanese artist, master of ukiyo-e engraving. He is best known as the author of images of Japanese women in the bijin genre (“pictures of beauties”). He became a pioneer in breast portraits (Okubi-e), and worked a lot with erotic engravings. Introduced innovations directly into the printing technique of woodcuts and expanded its color scheme.

Features of the artist Kitagawa Utamaro: created the most expensive prints - nisiki-e - multi-color prints with a gold or silver background (“brocade pictures”). He paid a lot of attention to the emotional component in writing models, although their appearance was generalized. The typical beauty of the Utamaro brush is: a small mouth, a fashionable shimada hairstyle with a lot of stilettos, thin raised eyebrows. This image will be archetypical largely due to the efforts of the artist.

Kitagawa Utamaro's famous works: "Three beauties of our day", "Yamauba is watching Kintaro playing", "Crest".

About the life of the artist, who is considered to be the great masters of Japanese ukiyo-e engraving, the information has been preserved very, very meager. Much more ideas about it can be made up of more than 2000 surviving works. Most of all he loved women, beauty and female beauty. He was often seen in merry quarters, where he searched for models among courtesans, tea house workers and geishas. Its name Kitagawa ("Northern river" translated from Japanese) he changed to identical in sounding, but written in other meaning hieroglyphs - "River of abundant happiness."

Was there a boy?

In the biography of the artist Kitagawa Utamaro too many gaps. Origin, place of birth, parents - all these data are missing; even the year of birth is known only supposedly. Regarding the city where the future master was born, there are several versions. Among the main ones are Kawagoe and Edo, but they also name the cities of Kyoto, Tochigi and Osaka.

The owner of one of the tea houses in Yoshiwar’s merry quarter was put forward as candidates for the role of a parent (in this case, the artist’s love for such places becomes clear). As well as the master Toriyama Sekien: he was a mentor to Utamaro for 7 years, and mentioned in his notes how he played in his garden as a child.

Becoming an accomplished artist, Utamaro was in no hurry to disclose information about his personal life. It is not known whether he had a wife and children. Researchers suggest that he still had a family, based on the presence of several engravings among the works that captured intimate home scenes with the participation of the same woman and the younger child.

Until the 40th anniversary, Utamaro did nothing significant in art. He began his career with illustrations for cheap editions, theatrical libretto and popular novels. By the end of the 1780s, he had reached a certain peak in this matter, creating illustrations that are now considered among the best in Ukiyo-e history. These were albums dedicated to the world of flora and fauna: “The Book of Insects”, “The Gifts of Crab Tides”, “The Book of Birds” and others.

Japanese beauty

In 1771, Utamaro addresses a topic that will glorify him throughout the country and will be associated with his name several centuries later. He is interested in writing prints with famous beauties of his time. And if at first he works more with group compositions or images of girls in full growth, then later he focuses on their portraits, becoming the discoverer and popularizer of Okubi-e prints (“big heads”). This allows him to focus on the inner world of the heroines and not only transmit their appearance, but also their emotions and character, which was a real revolution in the Ukiyo-e tradition.

His acquaintance with the publisher Tsutaya Juzaburo, with whom he worked until his death in 1797, also became a turning point in his career. The best engravers and printers worked under this publisher. This allowed the artist to create first-class quality paintings, as well as experimenting with paints and using mica powder, which gave the work a shimmer and a golden sheen.

Thanks to access to broad technical capabilities, he was able to achieve unprecedented brightness of shades and subtlety of lines, phenomenal for woodcuts. Few masters can see such intricate nuances for printing from wooden blocks as translucent objects behind which the outlines of other objects are visible, or filigree patterns on geisha outfits1, 2). What are only carps, floating in the waves on the kimono of one of "Beauties from Yoshiwara".

Victim of censorship

Like other Ukiyo-e masters, Utamaro worked in the erotic genre - shunga. More precisely, his shung prints are so frank that in the European tradition they would be called pornography and classified as obscenity. But in Japanese culture, such pictures were viewed more as a natural aspect of human existence and enjoyed the demands of representatives of all classes.

Kitagawa Utamaro still fell victim to censorship, but not at all for pornographic engravings, as one would assume. In 1790, a law was passed in Japan requiring that all prints coming out were approved by the censor. Over time, the requirements became increasingly stricter, and starting from 1799 even preliminary drafts had to be coordinated with representatives of the censorship.

Thus, it was strictly forbidden to depict state and military leaders, mention their names, or use family crests. Utamaro tried to circumvent this prohibition by slightly changing the names of his characters on an engraving, making fun of the lovingness of one of his modern Japanese rulers. The trick failed, and Utamaro was placed under house arrest with his hands tied for a period of 50 days.

It is considered that it was this incident that caused the artist’s subtle mental organization an irreparable injury, which eventually led him to the grave. The master went to the forefathers on October 31, 1806 at the age of 53 years, which was extremely young for the Japanese.

The author: Natalia Azarenko
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