The Obscure World of Early Women Artists of Japan
Women share a strange relationship with art. She is the inspiration behind many a great artistic creation, sometimes she is the muse of the creator, but hardly ever she is seen as an initiator herself.
Existing social structure, that made formal training, rigorous practice and exhibitions of artistic exploits difficult for women, can largely be blamed for the scant presence of talented women artists in the world of art till the 19th century.
Japanese poets of 10th century Heian era like Murasaki Shikibu, Sei Shonagon, Akazome Emon and Izumi Shikibu habitually embellished their journals with simple motifs and calligraphy.
Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji inspired many later day artists to create immortal works of art. Famous painters of Tosa School, particularly Mitsuoki, created several impressions influenced by Murasaki’s poems. Ironically, the poet herself was forced to remain hidden behind her pen name and the artists of the day anonymous. It was not a custom to let women painters sign their own creations.
The situation remained the same for ensuing seven hundred years or so. Then started the Edo period with its policy of sakoku and Japan became completely isolated from the outside world. No foreigner could enter or exit the country without facing a death penalty. For everything, including creative inspirations, Japan was forced to look within. Consequently, art and literature were injected with new life even in this apparently counterproductive time.
Practitioners of bunjinga or literati painting started challenging the existing social norms. Matsuo Basho accepted women as trainees in his school. Despite considerable oppositions, female painters could now practice openly and were no longer forced to remain obscure. Kiyohara Yukinobu (1643 – 1682) created very detailed yet delicate landscapes on folding screens and hanging scrolls. 18th-century poets and artists Chiyo-ni and Tagami Kikusha started combining ink illustrations and calligraphy with their haiku poetry.
Otagaki Rengetsu (1791 – 1875) was one of the most renowned artists of the time. She combined her love of poetry, calligraphy, painting and ceramic to create vivid depictions of her surroundings. Being a Buddhist missionary, her world was not confined to the limits of the four walls of the home. Instead, she traveled widely and met a great many people while performing her religious duties. This helped her to have a wider outlook and perfect her natural skills as an artist.
Uemura Shoen’s (1875 – 1949) work helped women become more engaged with the world of art. She was not only a gifted artist but also a single mother by choice. The latter decision caused considerable furor in a still conservative society. But her accomplishments as an artist were too great to be ignored for long. In 1948, she became the first woman to be honored with the Order of Culture in Japan. These instances were certainly helpful in promoting the cause of women artists in Japan and beyond.
Unlike the West, Japanese artists reveled in similar styles and subject matters irrespective of their genders. If any difference existed, it was in the delicacy of the presentation and softness of lines. Artists often searched for and found solace in nature. Even the women artists were not shy of confronting their inner demons on canvas.
Not surprising then that even today, thoughts such as the following expressed through poetry or painting continue to reverberate in everyone’s minds — “Living deep in the mountains / I’ve grown fond of the / Solitary sound of the singing pines; / On days the wind does not blow / How lonely it is!”
Note: Both the leading image and the closing haiku poem are creations of Otagaki Rengetsu. You may learn more about her in The Life & Art of Otagaki Rengetsu.