Lovers in an Upstairs Room from Utamakura by Kitagawa Utamaro

Lovers from the series Poems of the Pillow by Kitgawa Utamaro (1788)

My featured artist in My Daily Art Display today is Kitagawa Utamaro the Japanese printmaker and painter.  Utamaro was born in Edo, which is the former name of the present day Tokyo, in 1753.  Details of his early life are rather vague.  His original name was Kitagawa Ichitaro.  He was the son of a tea-house owner and when he was still a young child he became the pupil of the Japanese folklore artist, Toriyama Sekien, in whose house he lived whilst he was growing up.  As was the practice in Japan in those days, as he became older, he changed his name.  He changed it to Ichitaro Yusuke.  Although it is known that he married there are no records of the couple having children. 

His first professional work of art was published in 1775, under his (pseudonym) Toyoaki, it was for a cover of a Kabuki playbook.  After this he produced a number of actor and warrior prints and also some theatre programmes.  In 1781 he changed his pseudonym to Utamaro and began a series of woodblock prints of women.  Ten years on, Utamaro concentrated all his artistic efforts on making half length single portraits of women rather than women in groups, which had become popular with other ukiyo-e, woodblock print, artists.  His career really took off in 1793 and he went on to produce a number of very famous series featuring women of the Yoshiwara, the Askasen district of Edo, where male and female prostitution flourished.  In 1804 at the height of his success he encountered legal problems because of his prints relating to a banned historical novel.  His prints entitled Hideyoshi and His Five Concubines depicted the wife and concubines of a past military ruler, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and they were considered a great insult.  He was imprisoned for a short time and it is believed that this incarceration and his fall from favour devastated him and ended his artistic career.   He died in Edo two years later in 1806, aged 53.

Utamaro produced in excess of two thousand prints and is considered to be one of the greatest Japanese wood block print artists of his time and along with achieving a national reputation during his lifetime, his reputation has remained undiminished since and his work is known worldwide.

Today’s offering Lovers in an Upstairs Room from Utamakura (Poem of the Pillow) was completed in 1788 and is a masterpiece of erotic art.  Viewed slightly from below with two large human forms filling the picture.   Utamaro avoided the stereotypical “in your face” scene of lovers making love, which was popular at the time and instead went for a more subtle and restrained happening which nonetheless exudes an air of eroticism.  The lovers are not naked but this, in a way, adds to the eroticism as we are left to imagine what is happening.

Close up of the lovers

Before us we see the two lovers in bed.  The woman has her back to us and we can see the slender fingers of her left hand adoringly touching her lover’s face as his hand rests on her  shoulder.  Our attention is drawn to the nape of the woman’s neck.  Her jet-black hair is held high and the whiteness of her skin is exposed which is in stark contrast to the vivid red of her under-kimono.  Look at the minute lines that make up her hairline. Note how the fabric, which only partly covers the entwined limbs, is transparent adding sensuousness to this love-making scene.  Their faces are close together, maybe even touching.  They stare into each other’s eyes.  We can just see part of his right eye fixed in an intense gaze, which one feels is one of love and desire. 

Today’s  woodblock print is the frontispiece from The Utamakura  – Poem of the Pillow, a comprehensive and beautifully illustrated study of traditional Japanese erotic art produced by Utamaro and his long-time friend and publisher Tsutaya Jüsaburö.  Utamaro’s depiction of courtesans and their lovers in many cases failed to portray the life of misery some of the women had to endure.  Their poverty, their controlled oppression and the diseases which came with the nature of their work were rarely presented in his glamorised works and because of that they have received a certain amount of criticism in recent times.

This work of art I believe is one of the most sensuous I have come across, even though it is not of a sexually graphic nature.  Does this not prove that the semi-naked body is more beguiling and seductive than a body devoid of clothes ?