Inventing Utamaro: A Japanese Masterpiece Rediscovered

About the Exhibition

Fantasy and Reality

Within days of the Okada Museum of Art’s 2014 announcement that it had rediscovered Snow at Fukagawa, communication began to flow between that museum, the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, and the Freer|Sackler. Each institution holds one of the three paintings at the center of Inventing Utamaro: Snow (Okada), Cherry Blossoms at Yoshiwara (Wadsworth), and Moon at Shinagawa(Freer|Sackler).

Very quickly, all parties agreed to pursue a collaborative exhibition of the three works. Staff from both the Wadsworth Atheneum and the Freer|Sackler traveled to Japan to view the rediscovered painting and to consult on the logistics of this possible collaboration. In December 2015, staff from all three museums met at the Freer|Sackler to determine a path forward.

The ideal outcome would have been to bring SnowMoon, and Cherry Blossoms together at each of the museums. However, museum founder Charles Lang Freer’s will prohibits lending works of art. A facsimile of Moon thus was created as a stand-in that could be used at the Wadsworth Atheneum and the Okada Museum. To accommodate conflicting schedules and lending requirements, each museum also agreed to pursue its own approach to the exhibition.

Julie Nelson Davis, a professor and Utamaro expert, and I curated the Freer|Sackler exhibition. We decided to approach the display as an introduction or reintroduction of the three paintings, reunited after nearly 140 years and explored in multiple contexts. Instead of providing a conclusion, Inventing Utamaro offers an opportunity to reexamine this legendary Japanese artist and his work, looking more closely at the fantasy and reality that surround them both.

The exhibition begins by presenting Utamaro and his work at two critical moments—between the late 1780s and the early 1800s, when he created SnowMoon, and Cherry Blossoms, and at the turn of the twentieth century, when the three paintings appeared in Paris amid a craze for all things Utamaro. Separated by a hundred years, these two moments reflect very interesting and interrelated sets of circumstances.

The first moment lies in Japan during Utamaro’s lifetime (1753–1806). Based on a recent study of Utamaro’s work, Julie was the first to articulate that publisher Tsutaya Jūzaburō had marketed the artist as being intimately familiar with the pleasures he depicted. Tsutaya put forward Utamaro’s works as accurate depictions of beauty and sensuality created not by a journeyman artist but by someone immersed fully in that world. That sophisticated immersion became the Utamaro “brand.”

The second moment is in Paris at the turn of the twentieth century. As explored in the exhibition, a rage for Utamaro took hold there in the early 1890s. Nearly a century after Utamaro’s death, dealers, collectors, artists, and experts reinforced the portrayal of the artist as a sensitive chronicler of Japan’s pleasure quarters.

Julie and I knew that no previous exhibition had offered this notion of the Utamaro “brand” as a lens through which to understand the artist and his work. In the foregrounding galleries of Inventing Utamaro, viewers encounter the Parisian fin-de-siècle world of art, the fashion for art nouveau, and the veneer that overlaid the marketing of Japanese works. By beginning with this exploration of the Japanese and Parisian markets for exotic fantasies, we attempt to show why SnowMoon, and Cherry Blossoms were produced, as well as why and in what context they resurfaced some one hundred years later.

These galleries lead to the main room of the exhibition, in which the three key paintings are displayed. Current scholarship identifies about fifty paintings with credible Utamaro signatures and seals. Though SnowMoon, and Cherry Blossoms are unsigned and unsealed, scholars generally include this ensemble within the artist’s oeuvre. An ideal exhibition would assemble sheet prints, books, and as many paintings as possible credited to Utamaro and place SnowMoon, and Cherry Blossoms in their midst. Such an undertaking was well beyond the scale of possibility, but we have been able to achieve a similar context with fewer works. SnowMoon, and Cherry Blossoms are juxtaposed with Utamaro’s prints, suggesting that he and his studio reused motifs to form innovative designs.

A final gallery delves more deeply into Charles Lang Freer’s collecting of Japanese paintings of “beauties” during the first few years of the twentieth century. Alongside Utamaro’s paintings are works by other painters of “beauties”—as well as pieces mistakenly attributed to Utamaro’s hand—which together hint at Freer’s collecting motivations and conundrums. We hope it becomes clear that Freer, aided by Whistler and abetted by Thomas Dewing, another of his favorite American artists, saw the images of Japanese women by Utamaro and his peers as connections to a universal ideal. One suspects that Freer was less interested in the true backstory of these “courtesans” than he was in the fantasy of otherworldly beauty.

As we developed the exhibition’s arc, Julie and I worked to show both this fantasy world and the reality. We realized that the exhibition presented two moments when the desire to indulge in aesthetic fantasy meant politely ignoring a darker reality—that of indentured sexual servitude. We took care to describe the true specifics of the three pleasure quarters depicted in SnowMoon, and Cherry Blossoms.

We chose to close the exhibition with two photographs. One, from the Meiji era, shows women of the Yoshiwara “on display” behind the wood slats more glamorously depicted in Utamaro’s prints. The photograph, although surely posed, cannot disguise the women’s dour expressions and the wretchedness of the whole enterprise. The other image, taken recently, shows a large monument in Tokyo dedicated to thousands of women who died young (most by age twenty-one) in this harsh “trade.” Their remains were unclaimed by their families.

Much like the subjects of Utamaro’s art, Inventing Utamaro is a blend of beauty and vice, fact and fiction, fantasy and brutal reality. We hope the exhibition stimulates your curiosity and leads you to reconsider this legendary Japanese artist, his world, and our expectations of his works.

James Ulak, senior curator of Japanese art



Overview | Freer and Utamaro | Marketing Utamaro | Video | Highlights Gallery | About the Exhibition