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VJP title
Utamaro print showing


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Hashiguchi Goyô (1880-1921)
"Modernizing Utamaro"


Goyo kanjiUtamaro kanjiTwo famous names among Japanese printmakers have long been closely associated: the independent shin hanga master Hashiguchi Goyô (橋口五葉) and the ukiyo-e master Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806). In at least one respect it is somewhat surprising to compare these two artists. Utamaro left behind an extraordinary legacy of around 2,000 single-sheet print designs. Although his subject matter was varied, he is best known as the preeminent artist of the genre called bijinga ("pictures of beautiful women"), and scores of these print designs qualify as some of the most beautiful images of women ever created. Goyô, in contrast, completed a mere 13 woodblock printed designs during his brief life (he died prematurely from complications of influenza and meningitis). Otherwise, there was only one other nearly finished print for which key block proofs had been made while he was still alive, although Goyô did not live long enough to approve the colors. Among his many surviving drawings, 10 were issued posthumously in woodblock print editions. Given the exceptionally small production of Goyô's prints, how then can we speak of these two artists in the same breadth?

Goyo makeup
Beauty applying makeup (1918)
Utamaro makeup
Beauty applying makeup (c. mid-1790s)

Goyô was an independent shin hanga artist, acting as his own block publisher (hanmoto) and supervising all aspects of his print production based on his original drawings. He was trained initially as a painter in the Kanô-school manner and then later in the western-style oil painting at the Tokyo Art School, where he graduated in 1905. Goyô had a long-standing and serious interest in traditional Japanese printmaking (ukiyo-e) years before he designed his first woodblock print. As early as 1911 he had already begun studying, collecting, and writing about ukiyo-e. In 1914-15 Goyô published a series of three articles for Bijutsu shinpô ("Art News"): Hiroshige no hanga ("Woodblock prints of Hiroshige"), Nishiki-e no zenki ("The most productive period of brocade prints"), and Utamaro no e ni tsuite ("On the pictures of Utamaro"). For several more years he continued with such scholarship, writing more about Hiroshige, adding a study on Harunobu, and contributing various sections on ukiyo-e for the twelve-volume series Ukiyo fûzoku nishiki-e ("Floating world manners and brocade prints"). He was producing large numbers of sketches as well as more finished drawings, and in 1916-17 he supervised woodblock printed reproductions of ukiyo-e, which refined his knowledge of the craft of printmaking. This expertise would be evident in his own original and superbly made prints.

Goyô's first original print was produced in October 1915 in collaboration with the great shin hanga publisher Watanabe Shôzaburô — it would be Goyô's only work supervised by Watanabe, although one other print, a landscape depicting Mount Ibuki issued in January 1920, was distributed by Watanabe in 100 impressions to an art collector's club. His second print, a landscape with figures titled "Rain at Yabakei," was issued in March 1918. The design shown above left was Goyô's second bijinga print, produced independently and made under his direct supervision in April 1918 (the carving was done by Takano Shichinosuke and Koike Masazô, the printing at least partly by Maeda Kentarô). It is untitled, but is known variously under such descriptive labels as "Woman applying powder" or "Woman making up." The craftsmanship is superb, with beautifully selected and printed colors, metallic overprinting on the mirror case and ring, mica overlaid on the background, embossing of the flowers , delicate highlights on the skin, and gradation printing on the robe patterned with what are called kanoko ('fawn spots," one of the most popular Edo-period motifs used in shaped-resist textile dyeing called shibori). It is also a large design, measuring about the size of a traditional double-ôban single sheet (50 x 37 cm). Goyô's beauty has been considered by many critics to epitomize the modern woman of the Taishô period (1912-1926). So where do we find Utamaro in Goyô's design?

The design by Utamaro (above right) is one of the masterpieces of ukiyo-e, published by Iseya Magobei circa mid-1790s. The abridgement of the figure and the rear view, coupled with the reflection of the face in a large dressing mirror printed with dark mica, make this one of the most memorable images of the entire ukiyo-e school. If we consider the similarities between these two designs, we can see that each face is turned slightly in the conventional 3/4 view used since the inception of ukiyo-e. The two beauties perform the same task, the application of body makeup to the neck and shoulders, although a brush is used in the Goyô design, fingers in Utamaro's. Each design features a beautiful woman's face, stylish robes, and elegantly manicured coiffures. Overall these two designs are front and back views of quite similar compositions. It is very likely that Goyô, intimately familiar as he was with Utamaro's oeuvre, assimilated such features from this or other related designs by the earlier master.

The differences between these two masterpieces are, however, just as important as their similarities. Although both portraits share in a voyeuristic and eroticized depiction of women during their private moments, Goyô relied on an explicit frontal sensuality, whereas Utamaro used as his focus the eroticism of the exposed nape of the neck (an erogenous zone for the Japanese that was featured in countless ukiyo-e prints). The details in the two compositions are, of course, different throughout, including textile patterns (Utamaro's beauty wears a summer robe with a popular 'star fish' pattern), hair styles, and mirror forms. Two important features exist only in Goyô's composition: the greater naturalistic volume of the drawing and the accurate physiognomy.

With respect to volumetric drawing, the influence of western perspective, foreshortening, and three-dimensional space was a novelty during Utamaro's day, only partly understood and applied, whereas by the Taishô period these principles of drawing were well known in Japan (indeed, they were taught in established Japanese art schools, including Goyô's alma mater). Goyô's beauty possesses more weight and substance than Utamaro's, although Goyô's translation of three-dimensional volume is subdued, even compared to many of his own naturalistic pencil drawings. Her left hand is drawn more "in the round" than its counterpart in the Utamaro portrait, and there are delicate highlights of pink shading on her skin to suggest volume. Goyô's beauty seems less delicate, perhaps even more human, although some critics discern a certain aloofness in Goyô's women. As for the differences in the drawing of physiognomy, Utamaro's women were typologized — they were not actual portraits but idealized symbols for the beauties of his day (see also Utamaro and the Physiognomists). Goyô's portrait, in contrast, was an actual likeness — his model truly had a face like the one we see in the print.

Goyô's designs were not simply homages to Utamaro. Goyô absorbed what he could from his scholarly study of the ukiyo-e master and developed that knowledge into a foundation for his own work. He then constructed his designs with a graphical vocabulary derived from Utamaro, but modified to reflect his own artistic vision and the modern Japanese culture in which he lived. The result was impressive, despite such a small body of work. Perhaps part of Goyô's allure is the unrealized potential from an artist whose life ended in so untimely a fashion. His exacting standards, his direct involvement as a hanmoto, would never have permitted a large corpus of work such as Utamaro's, but what might Goyô have achieved had he lived a longer span of years? After all, 10 of the 13 completed lifetime designs were made in 1920, the year before he died — Goyô had really only just begun. Despite a life cut short in the prime of an artistic career, Goyô's designs influenced other shin hanga artists and now serve as enduring symbols of their era. © 2001-2002 by J. Fiorillo


  • Brown, K. and Goodall-Cristante, H.: Shin-Hanga: New Prints in Modern Japan.Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1996, pp. 60-61.
  • Jenkins, D.: Images of a Changing World: Japanese Prints of the Twentieth Century. Portland Art Museum, 1983, pp. 34-35.
  • Merritt, H.: Modern Japanese Woodblock Prints: The Early Years. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press 1990, pp. 69-75.
  • Smith, L.: The Japanese Print Since 1900: Old Dreams and New Visions. London: British Museum, 1983, pp. 54-55.
  • Stephens, A. (Ed.): The New Wave: Twentieth-century Japanese Prints from the Robert O. Mueller Collection. London & Leiden: Bamboo Publishing and Hotei-Japanese Prints, 1993, pp. 127-131.
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