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Utamaro print showing


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Iki (粋) in Ukiyo-e Prints
Eishi (栄之) and Eizan (英山)


Eishi teahouse geishaEdo was the center of a trend-setting merchant culture that prized the fashionable, sophisticated, and up-to-date. One aspect of Edo-period style and fashion was called iki ("refinement": 粋 or 粹), a quiet sophistication or restrained chic in both appearance and behavior.

The Edokko (lit., children of Edo: 江戸っ子) or native Edo citizens are said to have recognized three primary elements within iki. The first was hari ("spirit"), a sharp, direct, and uncompromising social style that was balanced and cool. The Yoshiwara courtesans, so often the subject of ukiyo-e prints, were the epitome of hari. The second aspect was called bitai ("allure"), a flirtatiousness that spoke of a restrained eroticism. Thus a woman possessing bitai was charming but neither vulgar nor wanton. The third element was akanuke ("urbanity"), an unassuming stylishness or polish without pretentiousness. There was an aspect of disinterest in akanuke that suggested the ideal beauty was restrained, not necessarily perfect, and always pleasant.

One other component of iki was especially important for its depiction in ukiyo-e. Iki was imbued with the tension of male-female relations. Erotic charm expressed in bitai existed primarily in the realm of the potential and a state of anticipation. As a woman's allure embodied iki only when she was available, a married woman did not typically possess iki,although ukiyo-e printmakers seemed to enjoy portraying married woman as such, suggesting the spark of illicit relations.

Around the mid-eighteenth century the technique of yûzen (painted resist) dyeing of textiles had freed artistic expression by providing a way to render small, precise details and complicated coloring, but eventually the public seemed to tire from an excess of intricate patterns. While elaborate displays of luxurious kimono and accessories were not abandoned, there was a shift in interest toward more restrained dress consistent with the ideals of iki. The kimono of the skilled entertainers called geisha ("accomplished persons") were simpler than those worn by high-ranking courtesans andtheir fashions became the measure of restrained chic or iki that others, including courtesans, sometimes emulated.

The image above illustrates the left-hand sheet of an ôban-format triptych by Chôbunsai Eishi (鳥文齋栄之 1756-1829) published by Iwatoya Kisaburô c. early 1790s. It depicts a geisha with her two female attendants (one carrying a samisen case) and a wakashu (an elegant young man) leading the way while holding a paper lantern. They are about the enter the garden of the Matsumoto Teahouse whose gate is just visible at the far right. The center and right-hand sheets (not shown here) depict three standing women greeting the entertainers and a woman serving food to two others. In Eishi's print the geisha wears a kimono indicative of the restraint associated with iki. It shows a simple pattern of leaves against a russet ground; even her obi is an unpatterned orange. Eishi's composition has a peaceful and sophisticated aspect that is the hallmark of his style.

Eizan iki picThe image on the left is a one of at least two known prints from the series Tôsei e-kyôdai ("Present-day Brother Pictures") by Kikugawa Eizan (菊川英山 1787-1867), published by Tsuruya Kinsuke in 1807. It bears the subtitle Hori no uchi no gaku ("Hanging Picture in Horinouchi," the Horinouchi, literally "inside the canal," referring to a district in Edo). Eizan's design alludes to the legend (shown in the inset) of the Chinese military servant Yü Jang (called Yojô in Japanese), who attempted to take revenge many times against a prince named Chao Wu-su. The prince pardoned Yü Jang after each assassination attempt, however, until Yü Jang, shamed by the prince's generosity, asked for a royal cloak, which he stabbed and tore apart, and then took his own life after declaring that he was not worthy to live in the same world as the prince.

In Eizan's print a mother carries her youngest boy as he hands a bag to his older brother. The brothers' gestures and expressions echo Chao Wu-su's handing the cloak to Yü Jang. This design works on several levels. In addition to the Sino-historical comparison, it is also a depiction of a beautiful young woman who, despite having perhaps a limited amount of bitai or allure (because she is married), still possesses sexual charm. Note her partly exposed chest, nape of the neck, and leg as well as her red underclothing, all considered risqué during the Edo period. Her left hand holding closed her robes also contributes to this erotic nuance.

Although this early work by Eizan still shows the direct influence of Kitagawa Utamaro, it demonstrates that Eizan had become the primary designer of bijin-ga ("prints of beautiful women") before the end of the first decade of the nineteenth century. ©1999-2019 by John Fiorillo


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