Note: This post contains references to and images of erotic art.
As a genre of art, ukiyo-e focused heavily on the expression of desire, and among the most popular subjects in the ukiyo-e canon are the prostitutes and geishas of Edo’s pleasure district.
In many ways, ukiyo-e predicted modern celebrity culture with its focus on and portrayal of the idealized lives of geishas. These women are represented as the embodiment of elegant beauty, a trope of femininity which defines the ubiquitously luscious, evocative imagery of ukiyo-e. It is important to note that, while some ukiyo-e art focuses explicitly on prostitutes, many of the most popular images instead depict geishas, educated courtesans of a separate social class who acted as artists, performers, hostesses, and occasionally sex workers to the wealthy and elite men of Edo and Kyoto (Marks 15). For geishas, it was not so much their sexuality which was bought and sold, but rather their sensuality, a subtle but poignant distinction which embodies the poetic sensibilities of the floating world itself. Their lives, as recorded in the prints of ukiyo-e artists, were commodities to be bought and sold to admirers who could not hope to afford their time nor favor (Marks 15).
While geishas comprise the dominant population of women depicted in ukiyo-e, they were by no means the exclusive group of women depicted, as many artists also created images of women of various social classes including serving girls, samurai wives and daughters, women of the merchant and peasant classes, as well as women simply local to the artists’ area (Marks 16). Despite the wide variety of women present in the canon of ukiyo-e, they are rarely depicted as anything other than beautiful, and the standards of ideal beauty are homogenizing, as the women of ukiyo-e tend to lack distinguishing facial characteristics but instead share a common template of female beauty which varies in detail slightly from artist to artist (Kornegay).
Even so, the sexualization of women in the context of ukiyo-e resists any one immediate explanation, as individual artists varied considerably in their depictions of women, a diversity reflected by the wide range of content genres comprising uikyo-e, only some of which contained erotic content. Furthermore, the exploration of fantasy afforded by the floating world sometimes extended to women as well, as many images explore themes of women’s sexualities and personal desires. Interestingly, some of ukiyo-e’s erotic shunga prints even address female sexuality in the absence of men, exemplified by Hokusai’s iconic The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife (Hokusai). This work, which offers a daring and provocative image of womanly lust, nonetheless portrays female sexuality through a decidedly male gaze, as most artists considered shunga prints to be for the pleasure and use of male customers (Marks 16).
Image: Hokusai, Katsushika. The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife. WikiArt: Visual Art Encyclopedia, https://www.wikiart.org/en/katsushika-hokusai/not_detected_223528.
Despite the often monolithic representation of women as objects of male desire and the harsh societal restrictions preventing women from pursuing any kind of formal education in the arts throughout the Edo period, some women still managed to pursue careers in ukiyo-e, with a rare few earning respect as professionals within the field (Gordenker). Two such women, Ema Saiko and Tokuyama Gyokuran, gained recognition as painters and poets in the late Edo period; both women were born to privileged families who taught them art at an early age, allowing them to rise up as artists despite not being permitted entry to a formal ukiyo-e school (Gordenker). While these artists’ ink paintings are celebrated today within the canon of Japanese art history, they existed at the margins of ukiyo-e during their own lifetimes, and neither had the opportunity to participate in or manage a printmaking studio like their male peers (Gordenker).
Image: Saiko, Ema. https://cogito.jp.net/kanshi/hakuosha.html
Image: Gyokuran, Tokuyama. Distant View from a Riverside Pavilion. MutualArt, https://www.mutualart.com/Artist/Tokuyama-Gyokuran/E655BD9FC4EAF06B.
Although this author freely acknowledges the limits of applying a Western feminist perspective to the Japanese cultural dialogue on gender and sexism in the arts, one observation holds true nonetheless: the women of ukiyo-e, though beautiful, complex, and elusive in their enigmatic presence as players in the floating world, are almost always the objects of art, and are rarely ascribed any agency as artists themselves.
Gordenker, Alice. “Painting Women of Japan.” The Japan Times, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2015/06/02/arts/painting-women-japan/#.XAYOLxNKgmI.
Kornegay, Lori. “The Representation of Women in Edo Period Nikuhitsu Ukiyo-e Paintings.” Tokyo Art Beat, June 2007.
Marks, Andreas. Japanese Woodblock Prints: Artists, Publishers, and Masterworks 1680–1900. Tuttle Publishing, 2010.