Sunday, October 21, 2012

Painting on a Vertical Scroll

Isoda Koryusai  ""The Yujo Koshikibu of Takeya painting on vertical scroll held by a young maid"
Societies which have had a Confucian influence in their organization have held a rather mixed position on women as visual artists. On the one hand, painting (paired with calligraphy) is considered to be one of the six arts, accomplishments that virtuous human beings must be constantly striving to attain. On the other hand, things are a little different for women than for men in Confucian ideology, and a woman's main duty in Confucian society is (as I, admittedly, only imperfectly understand it) to completely devote herself body and soul to the care of her family, upholding "the three subordinations." These conflicting views meant that historically the only women able to pursue the visual arts with societal approval were those whose family business happened to already be involved in the production of art (we can find several visual instances of women hard at work in the family woodblock printing "sweat shops" for instance) or those whose profession was that of courtesan or of concubine, women who had stepped entirely outside the familial circle of duty. An interesting exception to these two groups is women who acted as ladies-in-waiting, high-born attendants on royal or royally-connected women.

I am generalizing and simplifying, but in such cultures I get the sense that painting was considered an attractive accomplishment for courtesans and for ladies-in-waiting, as it served to show off their exquisite sensitivity and refinement. It was also a safe and respectable way to pass their time as they awaited the next visit from their patron (courtesan/concubine) or ceremonial duty (lady-in-waiting.)

I could not find out any more about Koshikibu of Takeya specifically, but as far as I am able to discover, the term Yujo means courtesan or licensed prostitute. Different copies of this woodblock print can be found in the collection of the British Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Isoda Koryusai (1735-1790) was a Japanese painter and printmaker. It is believed that he was born into a Samurai family, one of the elite warrior class, and was forced to take up the craft of printmaker when he became a ronin, or masterless samurai, but this point is hotly disputed by different historians. He was amazingly prolific and his talent was wide-ranging, including naturalistic studies of birds and elegant depictions of beautiful women. He also produced hundreds of shunga, erotic prints which were hugely popular during the Edo period in Japan.

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