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Posts Tagged ‘katsushika oi’

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.

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I still have lots I’ve yet to talk about from my Boston trip – chiefly, the Isabella Stewart Gardner’s Journeys East exhibition, and the MFA Showa Sophistication exhibit. I’m almost done reading James McClain‘s book on Kanazawa, so I’ll post about that soon, too.

But today, I’d like to talk about the new book MFA Highlights: Art of Japan, by Anne Nishimura Morse, Joe Earle, Rachel Saunders, and Sarah Thompson, which was just published a few months ago. At only $25 for 250 pages of full-color descriptions of a well-distributed sampling of the MFA’s amazing collection, I think it’s among the most reasonably priced art books I’ve ever seen. Softcover, perfect bound, gives the book a good feel in your hands and on your shelf.


The Museum of Fine Arts Boston has the largest collection of Japanese art under one roof anywhere in the world, including a number of pieces of incredible historical and artistic significance, which would quite likely be designated National Treasures or at least Important Cultural Properties were they to return to Japan. This book does a fine job of showcasing these pieces, including an 1189 statue of Miroku by Kaikei, a handscroll painting of the Siege of the Sanjô Palace (from the Heiji Monogatari Emaki), a folding screen of “Waves at Matsushima” by Ogata Kôrin, and a narrative handscroll (emakimono) of Kibi Daijin’s Journey to China.

It also does an excellent job of featuring a wide variety of big names in Japanese art, though it would obviously be impossible to not leave anyone out. Still, the book includes work by Kaikei, Soga Shôhaku and Itô Jakuchû, Kanô Motonobu, Tan’yû and Hôgai, Hokusai, Hiroshige, Harunobu, Shiba Kôkan (though, nothing by Harushige), Kuniyoshi, Murakami Takashi, and Morimura Yasumasa, and does so, more often than not, by treating the reader to works other than those for which the artist is most famous. Hokusai is easily one of the most famous names in Japanese woodblock prints, and the museum could have chosen to feature the Great Wave or any number of other famous prints; but the museum is also lucky to have a number of exquisite paintings by the master, and so chose one of those, a stunning image of a woman looking at herself in the mirror, in addition to two prints. They have also included a beautiful painting by Katsushika Ôi, Hokusai’s daughter. I’ll bet you didn’t know he had a daughter, or that she was a painter; we hear very little about female artists in pre-20th century Japanese art history, so this was a most welcome inclusion.

Most exciting for me, however, in going through this book, is the personal connection I feel to the objects, the museum, and all the people involved in creating this text. Over the course of my internship at the MFA, I became intimately familiar (okay, maybe not “intimately” but quite familiar) with many of these works. I think anyone who is an art enthusiast will appreciate what I mean when I talk about works that you feel a particular connection to, works that are in some way in your mind or in your heart “yours” even though they’re owned by museums, and you actually have no more connection to it than countless others do. Many of the works in this book are that for me. This internship, in fact, provided the foundation of my knowledge of Japanese art history; I’d never had the opportunity to take any Japanese art history courses in college beyond the most introductory level, and so it is through these works of art that I acquired my understanding of the differences between Kanô and Rinpa, Harunobu and Chikanobu, Jakuchu and Taiga.

For me, this book is not purely an art book, yet another “highlights of the collection” book, but a journey in nostalgia, and a fantastic source of reminders on all the artworks that formed the foundation of my Japanese art historical knowledge. I look forward to choosing works from this book for future Spotlight posts.

All images are the property of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and are linked directly to the Museum’s public Collections Database. Fair use is intended to the full extent possible; I make no claims of ownership of or rights to these images.

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