Scholten Japanese Art presents Fashion Forward: Edo Beauties of the Floating World

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Scholten Japanese Art presents Fashion Forward: Edo Beauties of the Floating World
Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825), The Debut of a New Geisha, ca. 1810s, woodblock printed triptych, 14 7/8 by 29 5/8 in., 37.8 by 75.4 cm.

NEW YORK, NY.- Scholten Japanese Art announced their gallery presentation, Fashion Forward: Edo Beauties of the Floating World, inspired by the concurrent museum exhibitions, Dressed by Nature: Textiles of Japan at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (through September 11th), and Kimono Style: The John C. Weber Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (through February 2023). The prints on view at the gallery explore the swagger and finesse of kimono styles from the 19th century as presented by woodblock print artists, who themselves could be considered the tastemakers and fashion editors of their time.

By the mid-18th century, the city of Edo was a booming cultural and economic metropolis of over one million residents. The local population of commoners and sophisticated mercantile Edokko (lit. ‘children of Edo’) was augmented by an ever-changing influx of samurai that served regional lords who were obliged to alternate years residing in the capital, resulting in a so-called ‘city of bachelors.’ In this dynamic environment a vibrant local economy produced discretionary income that could be allocated towards a variety of pleasures including an interest in one’s personal appearance. In the same way that modern fashion magazine editors mix highly stylized artistic spreads with photographs focused on real life celebrity styles, Edo artists recorded current looks while guiding future trends, thereby stimulating an interest in keeping up appearances that would naturally help sustain the print market.

As such, it is not surprising that images depicting beautiful women (bijin), which comprised an enormous portion of the woodblock prints known today as ukiyo-e (lit. ‘images of the floating world), featured the most up-to-date styles. A print by Keisai Eisen (1790–1848) depicting a beauty wearing a kimono with a beautiful indigo geometric pattern and complimentary striped obi while intensely contemplating a roll of embroidered obi fabric with a linear pattern demonstrates this alliance of art, fashion, and commerce, aptly titled: The Wife’s Habit of Wanting to Wear Something as Soon as She Looks at It (ca. 1818–30). In comparison, a print dating to the same period by Utagawa Kunisada (1786–1865) from a series titled Hours of the Yoshiwara depicts a courtesan wearing a voluminous uchikake (outer-robe) spreading out behind her with a very similar linear pattern indicates that both artist were in alignment, or, as they say, on trend, and that the pattern was desirable for a modest housewife as well as a ranking courtesan (as in, ‘who wears it best?’). In the foreground is a clever product placement of a packet of face powder Bien Senjoko that implies anyone can be as beautiful as a courtesan when using the right means.

A typical fashion print by Utagawa Kuniyasu (1794–1832) from circa 1829 depicts a beauty seated on a bench beneath a blossoming white cherry tree identified as the courtesan Karaori of the Daimonjiya house, but the real subject of the print is her combination of patterns and colors of her clothing. While these bijin prints featuring such resplendent courtesans may have been purchased as pin-ups of unobtainable icons, surely, they were also appreciated as fashion plates for sartorial enthusiasts. Although periodic restrictions by the shogunal government banning depictions of specific people necessitated creative workarounds to obliquely identify subjects with various subtle and not-so-subtle clues, savvy fans of the theater were eager to collect prints of kabuki stars adorned in magnificent costumes, as well as fanciful portrayals of actors in everyday life wearing au courant ensembles. Regardless of whether a figural print was of a known person or an idealized type of woman, the clothing, hairstyle, and make-up trends represented were of paramount importance and fueled a market tracking changing fashions.

An example of a print featuring a trendy make-up style is the circa 1826–28 bust portrait by Keisai Eisen (1790–1848) depicting a high-ranking courtesan with iridescent green sasabeni (‘bamboo rouge’) on her lower lip. The series alludes to the classical ‘immortal’ poets of the 9th and 10th centuries, A Pocket Mirror of Beauties: Six Immortal Poets of the Era (Bijin kaichu kagami: Jisei rokkassen), in this context it would be understood to represent a collection of six renowned beauties of the moment. The unusual repetition of a maple leaf motif on the collars of two layers of kimono hammer home the subject as compared to the immortal poet Ariwara Narihira (825–880) by alluding to one of his most famous poems referencing maple leaves, while an inner collar is decorated with an unusual and sophisticated pattern suggestive of blue and white porcelain. The vogue for iridescent green lips, achieved with multiple applications of the expensive beni, came into fashion in the late 18th century, and Eisen frequently illustrated the ‘retro’ embellishment on prints in the 1820s (as in ‘what’s old is new again!’).

The exhibition includes works by rare artists such as Katsukawa Shunsen (Shunko II; 1762–ca. 1830), as well as by their more well-known prolific contemporaries, including, Utagawa Toyokuni (1769–1825), Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1865), Kikugawa Eizan (1787–1867), Keisai Eisen, and Utagawa Kuniyasu. (1794–1832).

Scholten Japanese Art is located at 145 West 58th Street, Suite 6D, between 6th and 7th Avenues. For the duration of the exhibition, September 16 – 23, the gallery will be open with appointments appreciated, 11 – 5 pm; otherwise by appointment through October 15.

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