Member's pick Beliën Utamaro
Member’s pick

Member’s Pick: Beauties by Utamaro

This member’s pick is a print by Kitagawa Utamaro from the collection of Paul Beliën.

Member's pick Beliën Utamaro

Kitagawa Utamaro (1753–1806), Yoyokiku and Yoyotsuru of the Matsubaya House, from the series Yoshiwara Parodies of Kabuki, a Set of Ten, left sheet of an ōban triptych, 26.0 x 39.2 cm, spring of 1798 (Beliën collection).

Member’s Pick by Paul Beliën

Like many, I am a big fan of Utamaro’s work. That's one of the reasons I chose this print for my member’s pick. Another reason is that it unites two of my favourite subjects: beautiful women (bijin) and the kabuki theatre. 
The two women in this print work in the Yoshiwara, the (in)famous brothel district of Edo (today’s Tokyo). The woman on the left holds a large doll with the features of famed kabuki actor Ichikawa Danjūrō VI in the role of Sukeroku, the flamboyant hero of the oppressed. Perhaps Sukeroku is also depicted here as the brave defender of the women in this print?
As usual in ukiyo-e prints, the women are beautifully portrayed, in this case during the idyllic cherry blossom festival. However, we must not forget that the daily life of women in the Yoshiwara was far from rosy. They were trapped there, among other things, because brothel owners burdened them with huge debts that were difficult to pay off.
Of course, Utamaro and other ukiyo-e artists show us a bright side of the Yoshiwara, because prints of misery don't sell well. Yet it is certain that Utamaro and others were aware of the sometimes miserable plight of the women. 

A somber poem in another print by Utamaro depicting a low-status prostitute reads:
"Waiting for the dawn / On the dark, troubled path of love / In her thick black coat / How awful it must be / To make them look at her face" (Asano and Clark, ‘The Passionate Art of Kitagawa Utamaro’, 1995, 117). Different texts on ukiyo-e prints and paintings show that others also had an eye for the less glamorous sides of the world of the Yoshiwara and prostitution.