Some are geishas, some are ghosts, some are miserable, some joyful. They all look much alike.
They are neither young nor old. Their skin is white as snow. Their hair is black as jet. They all have tiny mouths. "Beautiful Women by Meiji Artists (1868-1912)," at the Sho-gun Gallery, 1083 Wisconsin Ave. NW, is bound to disappoint Westerners who seek the beauty of a woman in the features of her face.
In every wood block print on view, one line describes the cheek and chin. One line describes the nose. The face of these ladies are invariable as masks. They are beauties nonetheless.
Their beauty is apparent in their movements, in the way they hold their hands, and in the fabulous, extravagant colors of their clothes. Some of them are wanton, some are chaste; their characters are clearly seen if one ignores their faces. Japanese society entirely transformed itself in the Meiji period. It was medieval when it opened, modern when it closed. One sees that in these prints.
They are conflictive works of art. It is as if the men who made them, unable to decide whether they should be traditional or radical, Japanese or Western, chose to compromise instead. Throughout this exhibition the old and the conventional clashes with the new.
Many of these women do what ladies are supposed to do -- they tend their smiling children, they strum upon their kotos, gaze at the moon, bow to their superiors, whisk their cups of tea. Their actions seem to whisper. But the colors that surround them tend to scream and whistle. The artists represented had only recently discovered the new and gaudy dyes imported by the Dutch, but they used them with a vengeance. In their depictions of Fuji, of faces or the sea, they held themselves in check. But when they show us clothing, they let themselves go wild. The fabrics they display are yellow, red and purple, or shot with gold and silver. Large bats flap their leather wings and lifelike turtles crawl in the silk of these kimonos.
That schizophrenic mix of turmoil and calm, freshness and tradition, is perhaps most clearly seen in "Cool: The Fashion of a Geisha in the Early 1870s" a wood block print produced by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1829-1892). A geisha gazes at the sea. Her soft and fleshy palm, those few stray wisps of hair, and the way her breasts are glimpsed through her see-through kimono suggest high sensuality. There is nothing unconventional about her eyebrows or the waves, but still the image seethes.
Not long after Meiji won his battle with the sho-gunate and mounted to the throne, he cut his long black hair. Soon his armies would replace their robes of colored silk with uniforms similar to those by European military. That transition is suggested in Chikanobu's "Zoo-Goat." The woman in the foreground dresses in the old way. A father in the background shows his son a goat. The boy wears a sailor suit, his dad a homburg hat. The exhibition runs through August.
The Atlantic Gallery, 1055 Thomas Jefferson St. NW, is showing "Life Along the Potomac," a set of recent watercolors by Carolyn Grosse'. The artist lives in Northern Virginia. She paints Key Bridge and the mist, boats bobbing at their moorings, the shaded streets of Georgetown, Pennsylvania Avenue, the Mall. She seems to know her subjects well, she is skillful with the brush. Yet her sugarcoated pictures dwindle in the memory like works of motel art. Nothing in them bites, challenges or shocks. Her sunsets are too orange, her cherry blossoms are too pink, her Washington tends to look less like Washington than Paris. She prettifies the pretty. Her show runs through the month.