Woodblock prints reveal beauty of geishas, courtesans

Chris Bergeron

Leaving her brothel, a courtesan with coal-black eyes waits beneath a cherry tree and whispers to a samurai disguised as a wandering monk.

Admired for her idealized beauty, the stately lady Hanamurasaki once more walks the streets of 19th century Japan in a dragon-patterned kimono adorned with chrysanthemums and pink peonies.

She is just one of a score of lovely geishas and courtesans again turning heads in a fascinating exhibit of woodblock prints at the Worcester Art Museum.

Organized by Louise E. Virgin, this singular show, "Paragons of Fashion," invites viewers into the exotic "floating world" of Edo, present day Tokyo, where women of legendary beauty lived and loved, all dolled up in the latest hairstyles and finest kimonos.

The curator of Asian art at WAM, Virgin has gathered from the museum's collection 25 rare paintings and prints known as "Bijinja," or "beautiful person pictures." They were all made by five early 19th century artists who depicted the fashions and fabulous accessories of their times in woodblock prints of remarkable craft and vision.

While museum officials asked for a small show, Virgin created a numerically modest exhibit that opens a great window on a time of great change in Japanese history.

Though hardly household names, Kikugawa Eizan, Keisai Eisen, Katsukawa Shunsen, Utagawa Toyokuni and Utagawa Kunisada were the Japanese equivalents of Annie Leibowitz and Richard Avedon, artists who captured beautiful women in memorable images that transcend time and culture.

Virgin suggests visitors who aren't familiar with Japanese art think of the prints as the "fashion magazines" of their day.

"The museum has so many spectacular pieces. I just wanted the public to have a chance to see them together," said Virgin. "I thought these were artists who really excelled. And I wanted to select prints that were really stunning."

Subtitled "Early Nineteenth Century Woodblock Prints of Beauties by Toyokuni, Shunsen, Eizan, Eisen, and Kunisada," it runs through March 3.

Most of the show's prints are rectangular, vertically hanging images often mounted on scrolls that depict their subjects from head to toe, alone or in small groups. In several cases, they are displayed in matched pairs, triptychs and even four related panels.

Displaying remarkable powers of observation, each of the five artists captures small but essential details, like tortoise shell hair pins, the decorative patterns on sashes or sandals, lacquered clogs and the "snake-eye" umbrellas with their distinctive patterns.

"I think these are fine examples of some of these artists' best work," said Virgin. "In their own ways, these artists explored the human and psychological dimensions of the motifs of beauty."

Though the female subjects may initially resemble one another, a careful viewer will quickly see each artist individualizes his subjects through revealing gestures, recognizable backgrounds or personal histories familiar to Japanese viewers.

"In a way, this is an exhibit for the eyes," said Virgin. "It's arranged for people to sit (in the middle) and be surrounded by these prints."

In Eisen's detailed "Geisha Walking Along the Sumida River in a Snowstorm," a delicate young lady wears tall clogs and lifts her hem to keep her skirts out of the mud. In Kunisada's 1823 "Double Mirror Reflections of a Beauty Getting Glamorous," viewers will see a woman applying a popular powder to her neck. As if practicing 19th century product placement, the artist uses the same brand-name cosmetic in his print, probably as part of a paid advertising campaign.

"Paragons of Fashion" offers unforeseen pleasures and serendipitous surprises just like a visit to the "floating world."

Virgin has provided informative wall text for the prints detailing each lady's "fabric pattern" such as "bamboo blinds, lotus (and) anchor resting on seabed covered with shells." Visitors will discover that flying cranes and turtles with seaweed-covered shells were often embroidered onto kimonos as symbols of longevity.

And curiously, 30 years before Commodore Perry's "Black Ships" forced open Japan's doors, artists like Eisen (1790-1848) were brightening their ladies, landscapes and birds and flowers with a blue pigment imported from Berlin and known locally as "bero-ai" that gave rise to a "blue craze" in prints around the 1830s.

As an artistic fad, the Japanese infatuation with a wider range of blue tones and nuances still seems more refined than our current obsession with Britney's child care problems or Amy Winehouse's raccoon-tinted eyes.

Virgin, who studied for several years in Japan, explains telling details in the prints that make them seem at once more familiar and more alien. In Kunisada's charming print, "The Popular Type," a haughty beauty applies makeup with her crooked little finger to a finely trimmed eyebrow like a prom queen getting ready for her grand entrance.

As if to remind us we're in another world, Virgin points out the lady's dragonfly hairpin suggests the popular superstition that dragonflies fly with their heads pointed north, a symbol for wayward men who patronize the Yoshiwara, or northern pleasure quarters. Nowadays, we reveal our kinky inclinations on YouTube or "Girls Gone Wild."

In these woodblock prints, women might preen like peacocks but still maintain a refined hauteur that's missing from "Desperate Housewives."

While their services and evenings might be for sale, the ladies in these prints display a feminine elegance centuries ahead of Lindsey Lohan.

In a society that venerated propriety, these courtesans and geishas regarded high fashion as a reflection of a virtuous character. Please, don't even think about Heidi Klum on the cover of Sports Illustrated or Tyra Banks, modeling delicacies from Victoria's Secret with that superior smirk.

These "Paragons of Fashion" lived their own lives in a society that expected them to walk meekly behind their men.

Don't misjudge them.

"I don't think these women were passive. I think they found their own way within the rules and restrictions of Japanese society," said Virgin. "They weren't docile or weak. They showed a strength I never questioned."