When I first learned of paintings by Hokusai’s daughter, I was intrigued by her purely on that basis alone. Prominent women artists are rare in pre-20th century Japanese art, and while plenty of ukiyo-e artists were directly related to their masters or predecessors, somehow a daughter, particularly a daughter of such a great master as Hokusai, who did not found a school nor have all that many direct disciples, has a particular allure.
We have all heard of Hokusai – or are at least familiar with some of his most famous works even if we don’t know it. They are practically everpresent, used extensively in advertising, in cheap Japan-themed calendars and the like. But who knew he had a daughter of any note – that is to say, a daughter who was a prominent and accomplished artist in her own right?
I was introduced to Ôi through the painting at left, from the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, dubbed by the MFA curators simply “Three Women Playing Musical Instruments.” A fairly straightforward work, at least upon first glance, I would never have given it a second thought if it were not by someone as intriguing as Katsushika Ôi. Granted, it is a beautiful piece, expertly painted, with bold, beautiful colors. Granted, to see a figure with their back to us isn’t overly common, and it creates a sense of space between the three figures who are otherwise relatively flat; hardly an innovative move, but certainly interesting in its own way. Plus, the woman on the left is playing a kokyû, an instrument hardly ever heard of, let alone seen or heard today, even in geisha quarters or traditional/classical performance troupes, despite it being so essential to the trio ensemble seen here, the sankyoku of kokyû, shamisen, koto. Still, for all of that, the composition hardly stands out against other ukiyo-e works. The style resembles that of her father, Hokusai, very closely, and does not stand out to me, grabbing my eye and commanding my attention the way certain Hokusai works, or many works by Kaigetsudô artists, Miyagawa Chôshun, or others do.
Intrigued by Ôi therefore purely as a historical figure, as a female artist, and for her ties to the great master, but not so much for her artworks themselves, I sought out more about her, and was kindly informed by my good friend Kathryn about an article on Ôi by the prominent ukiyo-e scholar Kobayashi Tadashi*.
“Three Women Playing Musical Instruments” may not have made much of an impression upon me, but “Night Scene in the Yoshiwara,” seen at the top of this post, struck me, immediately, in a way few paintings do.
It took me a few moments to realize what it was that was so tantalizing and striking about this image. Granted, it’s a beautiful scene, with bright colors, but so are just about all ukiyo-e paintings. Then it hit me. Of course! Traditional Japanese paintings don’t show the interplay of light and shadow, and this painting does that in a major way.
Ôi shows herself here to be not simply playing with light and shadow as a curiosity, as many ukiyo-e artists toyed with Western-style one-point perspective for a time. Rather, she employs it quite expertly, to the fullest effect, creating a scene which speaks its mood and atmosphere clearly and directly (to a modern-day Western viewer such as myself, at least). Typically, in traditional Japanese painting, we would expect to see night scenes lit up as bright as day, no light sources evident, no shadows depicted. Only the moon in the sky, torches, lanterns, candles, and other signs would indicate it to be a night scene, nothing in the mood or shading of the image overall.
Over a half century earlier, Harunobu was perhaps the first Japanese artist to depict a night scene with a solid black (or very dark color) background, rather than a blank white or other solid color background used indeterminately for any time of day or night. Yosa Buson experimented with this too, in one of my favorite compositions, but it never took hold in the Japanese painting or prints traditions, and remained revolutionary and unusual when Ôi did it many decades later.
Her technical skill and eye for detail in this image are astounding. The soft focus effect seen in the way the various light sources pierce the darkness, each pool of light fading softly – not too sharply – into the darkness at its edges, creates an effect unlike any I have ever seen in ukiyo-e. It is not simply her technical skill which impresses, though, of course, but the effect created, the mood set, the picture painted, which strikes me so.
In a way, the lanterns and other light sources resonate with, or parallel, the music being performed by the courtesans within, and with the presence of the beautiful women themselves. The women, and their music, like the lanterns, cut through the dark night, beacons of light, song, entertainment and pleasure in the otherwise depressing, isolating, and perhaps frightening darkness.
In most ukiyo-e, I find it difficult to imagine the music and liveliness of the pleasure quarters. The colors in many paintings can be quite bold, but the universal light source and absence of shadows seen in most works washes out the image in a way, I feel. The light itself takes away from the courtesans’ role in providing that source of happiness, of entertainment, of metaphorical light in the darkness. Here, by enveloping the courtesans and their world in darkness, as it would be in reality, the pleasure districts being a place of evening pleasures after all, Ôi has conversely allowed them to shine, and their music to be heard.
*Kobayashi, Tadashi. Julie Nelson Davis (trans.). “The Floating World in Light and Shadow: Ukiyo-e Paintings by Hokusai’s Daughter Ôi.” in Carpenter, John et al (eds). Hokusai and his Age. Hotei Publishing, 2005. pp93-103.