Re: When is a beauty not a beauty?

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Posted by John Fiorillo on September 25, 2002 at 22:14:06:

In Reply to: Re: THANKS!!! Re: 1) Quick personal "Hi" and: 2) Hiroshige which are these two? posted by Dick Illing on September 25, 2002 at 09:44:38:

Hello, Dick,

I don't think this is just a matter of disagreeing about what we mean by 'bijin-ga'. There are numerous examples of bijin-ga by Hiroshige throughout his career, even if we limit the definition by saying 'bijin-ga' are pictures of beautiful women in which they are unquestionably the primary focus of the composition.

Besides various single-sheet designs, there are also triptychs by Hiroshige showing bijin as the primary subject, often one figure dominating each sheet, very much in the manner (or at least partly derived from) Eizan, Eisen, Toyokuni, and Kunisada bijin. Many of these date from the 1840s-50s. These subjects are unambiguously 'bijin-ga'. They are shown with the usual array of settings: walking on bridges, cooling down by a river, promenading in the towns, relaxing on balconies, and so on. I don't see any way to exclude these from the canon of 'bijin-ga'.

Hiroshige designed 'bijin-ga' in various formats. See, for example, his 'uchiwa-e' (fan prints) in the recent publication by Faulkner (Hiroshige Fan Prints). Plates 116-118 show 'okubi-e' of single beauties performing 'mitate' of the Sanbas˘ dance from a series in 1855, late in Hiroshige's career. Again, clearly bijin. There are many other examples in other formats that focus exclusively on beautiful women as the subject.

In addition, if we stretch the definition a bit (but legitimately), there are countless designs that combine bijin subjects with other themes, simultaneously offering two or more primary genres. I think we might all agree that a series of actors placed before the stations along the T˘kaid˘ are both views along the T˘kaid˘ and portraits of actors, so I don't understand how one might argue convincingly that beauties set against views of Fuji or the 60-odd Provinces are not 'bijin-ga'. Rather, in my opinion, they would be both 'meisho-e' and 'bijin-ga', and I believe the Edo-period Japanese saw them as such. I would agree that if the figures were proportionately quite small and merely incidental to a scene, then we would have primarily a 'meisho-e'. However, this is not the case with many Hiroshige designs where the figures of the women stand prominently in the foreground, and in which their attractive figures, postures, attitudes, clothing, hairstyles, etc. are central aspects of the design. Thus such compositions would be both 'meisho-e' and 'bijin-ga'.

In any case, even if we were, for the sake of argument, to exclude designs that combined themes, there are still, unequivocally, easily identifiable single-theme 'bijin-ga' by Hiroshige throughout his career.

By the way, what, exactly, did Stewart say in his book? I don't have the reference immediately available.


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