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Utamaro print showing


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Bijinga (Shûhô and Kotondo)


Shuho Bijinga ("pictures of beautiful women") was from the inception of ukiyo-e a principal genre for Japanese printmakers. Artists in the 20th-century shin hanga movement modified the traditional approach by blending western painting and printmaking models with the Japanese painting styles (see, for example, the comparison between Goyo and Utamaro). This fusion of contemporary style with traditional views about women and their roles in society resulted in kind of neo-ukiyo-e typology of feminine beauty.

One figure at the center of influence was Kaburagi Kiyokata (1878-1973), a designer of illustrations for the frontpieces of novels (kuchi-e) who turned to paintings in the 1920s. These designs often played upon the conflict between conventional Japanese painting styles and western modernity. Kiyokata taught many of the shin hanga artists, including Itô Shinsui (1898-1972), the movement's finest bijinga artist and an excellent designer of landscapes as well. Two other students of Kiyokata's were important artists who specialized in bijinga, Yamakawa Shûhô and Torii Kotondo.

Yamakawa Shûhô (1898-1944)

Shûhô's real name was Yamakawa Yoshio, a Kyoto-born artist. He also studied Japanese-style painting with Ikegami Shûhô (1874-1944). His first exhibitions were of his paintings in 1919; later, in the 1920s-30s, he designed about twenty prints, some for the publisher Watanabe, but most for the shin hanga publishing firm of Bijutsusha. Shûhô's style reflected his Kyoto origins in its refined, restrained coloring and detailing of fabrics and hair.

The image at the top right is titled Yuki moyo ("Threatening to snow"). It is a large ôban-size print (383 x 264 mm) signed at the upper right 'Shûhô' and accompanied by the artist's red maple-leaf seal. Although dated December 1927 in the margin, it is likely a reissue by the original publisher Bijutsusha, who released various editions without the publisher's seal (a rectangular seal many have read as hiragana characters for 'Rumi', but which actually reads 'Bi' — the first character in 'Bijutsusha' — in a cursive calligraphic script). It is difficult to determine how late these editions might have been. The young beauty lifts her sleeve to her mouth, a conventional gesture indicating shyness or an attempt to suppress the display of strong emotion. She is probably daydreaming about love. The printing is superb with delicate gray shading in the hair, the palette is lively, and overall the design is enhanced by a luxurious pink mica ground.

Torii Kotondo (1900-1976)

Kotondo Kotondo's personal name was Saitô Akira, a Tokyo-born artist and adopted son of the artist Torii Kiyotada ((1875-1941), who taught Kotondo in the design of kabuki theater billboards and ukiyo-e-style printmaking. Kotondo then studied with Kiyokata beginning in 1917, when he developed his approach to bijinga. He designed only about twenty-one prints, all but one for the publishers Ikeda, Sakai, and Kawaguchi (he did not work with Watanabe). The decorative aspects of Kotondo's prints are infused with a contemplative, nostalgic mood that is so often associated with bijinga of the shin hanga movement.

The figure on the immediate right is a large ôban-size print (457 x 305 mm) titled Yuge ("steam") and published by Kawaguchi in October 1929. The edition number on the back reads 254/300. The block cutter was Ito and the printer Komatsu Wasakichi. It is inscribed at the upper right Shôwa yonnen jûgatsu Kotondo ga ("Shôwa 4, tenth month, painted by Kotondo") and sealed Kotondo. A young beauty is shown toweling off in a steam bath. Once again we encounter a contemplative, slightly wistful mood. Overall the quality of printing is very well done, with a hard baren (circular rubbing pad) used purposely to leave swirling marks in the blue-gray background, suggesting mists of steam (the technique is called baren sujizuri, "baren traces printing"). There is a printing mistake, however, at the lower left where the blue of the towel has been extended over the skin of the right arm. Other impressions have also been found with this error, but it has not yet been determined whether they exist only in examples issued solely by Kawaguchi or also in the supposedly earlier impressions issued jointly by Sakai-Kawaguchi (who ended their association around 1931). ©1999-2001 by John Fiorillo


  • Brown, Kendall and Goodall-Cristante, Hollis: Shin-Hanga: New Prints in Modern Japan. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1996, pp. 59-64.
  • Merritt, Helen: Modern Japanese Woodblock Prints: The Early Years. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1990, pp. 81-84.
  • Smith, Lawrence: Modern Japanese Prints 1912-1989. London: British Museum Press, 1994, pp. 38 & 50 and plates 49-50.
  • Stephens, Amy Reigle (Ed.): The New Wave: Twentieth Century Japanese Prints from the Robert O. Muller Collection. London & Leiden: Bamboo Publishing & Hotei Japanese Prints, 1993, pp. 179 & 198-203, plates 226-227 & 262-271.
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