Whilst tidying up my bookshelves today, I came across an exhibition catalogue from 1988:Ukiyo-e, Images of Unknown Japan. The exhibition, held at the British Museum in London, was the first I'd ever attended. I can recall the month in which the visit took place (July), as it was arranged to coincide with my birthday, and Jack Hillier gave me a copy of the catalogue as a gift and took my then boyfriend (now husband) and I to lunch to celebrate before we all went on to view the exhibition together.
One of the prints on display was that of Takashima Ohisa, inhosoban format, in which the young waitress' figure is depicted on both the front and reverse of the paper. It was exhibited in such a manner as to allow us to view both sides, with the light passing through the paper to allow for a comparison between the design of Ohisa as seen from the front and that of her seen from behind. Of all the prints on display that day, that design of Ohisa fascinated me the most, and inspired a set of my own humble drawings not long afterwards in which I attempted, with far less success than Utamaro, to represent figures from both the front and rear on a single sheet of paper.
Also on display was the painting thought, at the time, to be a memorial portrait of Utamaro, painted by Chôbunsai Eishi, supposedly nine years after Utamaro's death. Jack Hillier pointed out the fact that the painting style was not at all characteristic of Eishi, and suggested that the signature and inscription had been added to a painting carried out by another artist, and that the subject was not Utamaro at all. I remember wondering at the time if perhaps a general willingness to accept the image of Utamaro as a worn out old roué, due to years spent depicting (and supposedly enjoying the company of) the women of the Yoshiwara, had made it easier to accept the portrait as genuine... it is, after all, an unattractive painting of an unattractive man who, from his appearance, may well have lived a dissipated life.
It was at this exhibition that I had my first "in the flesh" encounter with Sharaku, as fifteen of his designs were on display, including one of the artist's most well-known works, that of the actor Ôtani Oniji III playing the part of the servant Edohei, from a play performed in May of 1794 entitled Koi Nyôbô Somewake Tazuna (A Loved Wife's Reins Dyed in Different Colours). The Sharaku prints did dominate the room somewhat, as the bust portraits, set against dark mica grounds, were so striking when lined up next to each other so that they travelled along two of the exhibition's partitioned walls.
The exhibition presented a wonderful opportunity to view the works of so many outstanding Ukiyo-e artists, with two hundred prints and numerous books on display. It hardly seems possible, though, that it has been twenty years since it took place.
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