Sunday, 26 December 2010

The Beautiful Women of Uemura Shoen

Exhibition flyer showing the famous work, 'Start of the Dance' 1938

The recent exhibition of Uemura Shoen’s (1875-1949) work at the Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, was a good chance to get an overview of this prolific artist. Almost anyone familiar with Japanese art of the twentieth century will have run into her work – indeed, she was one of the most prolific of the Kyoto based artists working in the ‘Bijinga’ (beautiful women) field. Despite the evident beauty of many of her works, I think we can say a little more than that about them. I was very impressed by some of them, and not so much by others. Once again, the catalogue is not necessarily a help in making judgements, as much of the power of the earlier works is lost, and the later ones benefit from having the large empty expanses reduced in scale.

Here are some of my observations...

Detail from 'Preparing to Dance' 
The exhibition included about 100 of her works, including many of the most famous ones, and a room full of sketches, giving a broad overview of her oeuvre. I would say that the first thing that strikes the visitor is how skillfully she uses her medium. The first room, in particular, shows some beautifully painted works – she had clearly mastered the tradition in which she worked and had imbued her subjects with a grace and lightness which makes them perfect exemplars of their type. As a woman in a male dominated world, she must have had to battle for every inch of ground, and in terms of the paintings themselves, she was more than successful. The bokashi (delicate blending) was exquisite, and she showed very sure handling of form, line and colour – which is to say, she drew very well, with delicate, finely articulated figures; her brushwork showed great finesse (for those unfamiliar with it, brushwork is a different quality to that in western art – the outlines of figures and drapery are drawn with long single strokes of the brush… one line = one stroke, and so the firmness, decision and liveliness of the line itself, as well as the form it escribes or the shape it encloses, have value.) Skill with colour is also a technical skill, as well as being a matter of choice. Not only do the colours have decorative and emotional impact, but the manual skill necessary for laying down flat, unblemished areas of colour is also part of the mastery. Looking closely, it was possible to ascertain something of the covering qualities of the different pigments – the reds, in particular looked very strong and solid. This is something it is difficult, if not impossible to judge through a catalogue, in which most of the subtleties have been removed, (partly due to printing coasts, I assume), and is the one of the reasons why paintings can have so much power when you see them as objects, rather than images.

Moving into the next gallery, there was a slow but discernible change in the pictures as Shoen, a mature artist in her 40s-50s, followed different paths of development. The catalogue notes tell us she was searching for inner emotion, expressing it through the restriction of expression, resolving the previous details of the background into larger areas of denser colour. Part of her inspiration for this came from her interest in Noh theatre in which, unlike kabuki, which delights in powerful, expressive movements of the body and face, the actors wear masks that allow for no direct communication of feelings through facial expression. Though I can appreciate her desire to replicate something of this in paint, there are some aspects of particular arts that are resistant to transfer. In fact, this is what gives them their own particular characteristics. Noh is a rather refined art, but it has a dynamism that is expressed through the restraint of the movement and the fine carving of the masks. What works in this context cannot necessarily be transferred to the medium of paint. Whereas in Noh, the control and skill, the suppressed emotional energy are present in the voice, the movements, the gestures, and are evident to the observer, in a painting, that degree of restraint, especially in a style that utilizes thinly brushed lines and colours points to vacancy, rather than pent up, focussed energy. I’m afraid that, to my mind, the paintings fell into this category – they appeared to coarsen and lose their finesses and subtlety. Far from giving greater insight, they gave less, I felt, as there were fewer queues to work from.

Detail of 'Start of the Dance'... the delicate articulation of line of the earlier works is clearly lacking - but what is there in its place?
I am aware that this is partly a cultural difference, and that inexpressiveness is supposed to speak volumes, but I am also aware that this can be an excuse for hollowness – a real lack of substance. Look beneath the fine exterior and you will find… nothing. Focus becomes turned in on itself, an exercise in mental tension, with no content other than the concentration itself.

I see the attraction of such theories – paring down the inessentials to focus on content – but in this case, the actual works did not bear them out. I can also see that an artist might move in a direction that doesn’t necessarily result in better work. It may be for personal creative reasons, the result of market pressure, or just a drift with the times as fashions changed.  For Shoen, I think it was probably a combination of all of these.

It seems she was greatly affected by the criticism of bijinga at the 9th National Art exhibition (1915). Although her works were not singled out, the genre came under fire for being out of touch and irrelevant to modern times. Added to this was the suggestion that the women depicted in these paintings were not ‘real’ women, merely pretty, doll-like figures. Of course, not only were many of them indeed, doll-like, but were also geisha, and thus could be regarded as ‘play-things’ in another sense, as-well. In fact, one has only to look at the faces in Shoen’s earlier work to see the truth of this criticism.

This would have been enough to give anyone food for thought. The direction she moved towards was not unique (though on reading the exhibition catalogue, you might be forgiven for thinking so). Many artists took a similar tack, flattening and slightly abstracting the principle images, in so doing, hoping to go beyond the superficial likeness and achieve more psychological insight and universality. In fact, Shoen’s son was one of those who did just this, followed by his son in turn.

Uemura Shoen, 'Contemplation' detail, 1946
Unfortunately, to my eye, many of the best of these paintings appear merely decorative, and the worst, distinctly amateur. It was the beginning of a slow road towards superficiality and prettiness. Not that Shoen’s paintings fall into either of these categories, but she was schooled in a far harder discipline than those who came after her. I think part of the problem is that she abandoned the absolute purity, the finesse and beauty of her line, and what she replaced it with never came up to the same level. Whereas a painter such as Terashima Shimei produced works that employed simplification and gave insight into character, this never really comes out in Shoen’s work.
Terashima Shimei, 'Winter' 1941

However, this should not be taken as detracting from her stature as an artist – the artist brings him or herself to the artwork, and reveals their humanity, in all its glory and all its faults.

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