Art and architecture critic

Kitagawa Utamaro (1753–1806). "Snow at Fukagawa." Japan, Edo period, ca. 1802-6 Hanging scroll; color on paper. (Okada Museum of Art Hakone)

“The whole of Japan is a pure invention,” wrote Oscar Wilde in 1889, as a craze for all things Japanese was sweeping European capitals. “There is no such country, there are no such people.”

In his usual, maddeningly paradoxical way, Wilde was probably trying to say something meaningful. Perhaps that Japanisme had grown so intoxicating, pervasive and influential that it had floated free of any reference to its supposed origins in Japan. He may also have been groping after a truth acknowledged in an exhibition of Japanese paintings at the Freer Sackler Museum, that the West had invented its own image of Japan, a Japan that served Western ideological, aesthetic and erotic interests.

“Inventing Utamaro” explores three large paintings by a renowned 18th-century master of Japanese art, Kitagawa Utamaro, and places them in the context of the same Japanisme that inspired Wilde, and Charles Lang Freer, who bought one of Utamaro’s masterpieces and brought it the United States. The idea of “inventing” Utamaro refers both to how little is known about him, and how his reputation was built up and marketed by savvy entrepreneurs catering to the taste for Asian exotica in cities like Paris.

In the background is a complicated history of Japanisme that is often elided in exhibitions. In the West, we know that the emergence of Japanese prints (many from the 18th century, but even more made later to appeal to modern audiences) profoundly changed the direction of art in 19th-century Paris. Progressive or Avant-garde artists were particularly enthralled at the visual games they found in Japanese images, the flattening of perspective, the foregrounding of pattern, the curious games with the angle of vision and the cropping of the frame and intrusion of close-up details into the field of vision.

But Japanisme wasn’t limited to what adventurous artist in Paris sought out and amplified in Japanese prints. It also included everything from fine Japanese ceramics to tchtothckes, and with that range of material there was a wide spectrum of ideas about Japan. Was it the land of the ultrarefined, Apollonian tea ceremony? Was it a land of kitsch? Or was it a paradise of eroticism and sensuality, as seen in a print depicting what was known as the “floating world,” or ukiyo, that defined the sophisticated entertainment (including prostitution) in Japan’s urban areas?

Kitagawa Utamaro . "Moon at Shinagawa (also known as Moonlight Revelry at Dozō Sagami)." Japan, Edo period, ca. 1788. (Freer Gallery of Art)

Utamaro was a draughtsman who contributed prodigiously to the production of ukiyo-e, the prints that depicted the gracious women of the floating world. He was, as the curators of this exhibition explain, a “brush for hire,” meaning he likely made these images because that is what he was paid to do. But when he enters into the Parisian art market, he is recast not as a pragmatic artist who produced everything from erotica to book illustrations, but as a specialist, a visual connoisseur of women.

Edmund de Goncourt, a writer, journalist, novelist and master self-promoter, wrote a biography of Utamaro, even though there was little reliable biographical information available, and in that book Goncourt went further, suggesting that Utamaro wasn’t just a specialist in the depiction of women, but committed roué. “He died of exhaustion,” says a Japanese art dealer cited in the book.

Kitagawa Utamaro. "Cherry Blossoms at Yoshiwara." Japan, Edo period, ca. 1793. (Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art/The Ella Gallup Sumner and Mary Catlin Sumner Collection Fund)

In the background to this background is another fact, acknowledged at the end of this exhibition: The ukiyo was built around the exploitation of women, who were often sold into prostitution and had no control over their bodies or dignity. So we have multiple levels of what is essentially a cover up, a gilding or glamorizing of ordinary or ugly things through art. The ugliness of prostitution was being dressed up as refined entertainment in the kinds of prints that Utamaro was making in the 18th century; those prints, and images inspired by them, were being marketed as “art” to 19th-century Parisians; that “art” was being recast as Japanisme, a way of seeing the world, that influenced artists such as Whistler and Monet. And finally, thanks to aesthetes like Wilde, Japanisme was severed from Japan altogether, and colonized as a Western ideal of taste and aesthetics.

Where is Utamaro in all of this? The exhibition gives an overview of the kinds of work he produced, from book illustrations to explicit erotica (the books are decorously turned to PG-13 pages, though the Full Monty is easily found online). Only about 40 to 50 paintings are confidently ascribed to Utamaro, and a few of those are in the exhibition, including a lovely work on a fan.

The highlight, of course, is the three large-format paintings around which the exhibition was based. These likely came to Paris in the late 19th century, and were sold off separately a few decades later.

One ended up at the Freer, another eventually at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Connecticut. The third, “Snow at Fukagawa,” was on view in Japan in 1948 but disappeared after that. It resurfaced at the Okada Museum of Art in 2014 and has been extensively restored. This is the first time that all three paintings have been shown together in living memory.

Were they meant to be seen together? Are they a “triptych”? Are they even by Utamaro? They are all about the same size — large, wall-filling images — but not exactly the same dimensions. Two of them were likely made between 1788 and 1794, while the third, the recently rediscovered “Snow at Fukagawa” is tentatively dated 1802-1806. All three show scenes that romanticized different pleasure districts in Edo, or old Tokyo. The names of the works, including “Cherry Blossoms at Yoshiwara” and “Moon at Shinagawa,” seem to reference a poetic or philosophical trope — Snow, Moon, Flowers — that suggests they could have been intended as an ensemble. But the exhibition acknowledges uncertainty on all these points.

Together, however, they make for a dramatic display and an immersive experience. They expand on details in ukiyo-e prints to make a room-filling panorama. The center piece, “Moon at Shinagawa,” accentuates perspective lines with a background open to the sea, to suggest an unusually expansive image, and perhaps a subtle metaphor for the ephemeral pleasures referenced in all three works.

And they are, alas, effective, making one wish to participate in the dream of pleasure on offer. This world may be premised on ugliness through and through, but these images give no hint of that, and constantly divert the mind from any reckoning with the reality that is carefully masked and hidden. Wilde meant something very different when he imagined Japan as an invented place, but his words are worth keeping in mind: “There is no such country, there are no such people.”