"Pictures of beautiful women."


An Edo Period Bijinga print by
Kitagawa Utamaro

Bijinga is a Japanese word used to describe pictures of beautiful women in Japanese art, especially the wonderful body of works skillfully crafted by the woodblock artists of Japan. "Prints" or "portraits" of beautiful women may more accurately capture the spirit of the term bijinga since the origin and definition predate photography.

In modern times however, Japanese female portrait photographs, oil paintings and other modern mediums are considered in the genre of Bijinga as well. One bijinga scholar has claimed, "The woman must be wearing a kimono." This is probably a good rule of thumb, but the only real rule is that the art must be a somewhat classic representation of a woman.

During the Edo period (c.1603-1868) in Japan a new art form called "Ukiyoe," which translated into English means "pictures of the floating world", emerged. Typically when we look at the history of world art we find most artistic works were created for emperors, lords, kings and other aristocrats. Ukiyoe differs in this respect, Ukiyoe was created for the people. Ukiyoe largely depicted the lives and times of the people and places in the pleasure quarters of Edo (modern day Tokyo). These "red light" districts of Edo, the most famous of which was known as the Yoshiwara district, were famous for their Kabuki actors and beautiful women. It follows that the two main genre of Ukiyoe to emerge during this time period were prints depicting Kabuki actors, and prints known as Bijinga depicting the waitresses, geisha and courtesans of the pleasure quarters. These prints not only serve to record and capture this time in Japanese history, but they also help to celebrate the Japanese ideals of beauty.

Artists such as Kitagawa Utamaro, Hishikawa Moronobu, Keisei Eisen and Suzuki Harunobu are among the most famous of the Edo period and typify this era of Japanese art.

A Meiji Period Bijinga print by
Toyohara Chikanobu

As the Japanese people transition from the Edo period to the Meiji period (c.1868-1912) the influences of the western world begin to become evident in their art. The floating world is left behind and the woodblock prints of the day transition to depict more of an "everyday life" subject matter. We begin to see the production of more prints depicting legends, landscapes and temples. The bijinga of the time also begins to transition to depict everyday women doing everyday things rather than concentrating so heavily on geisha and courtesans, although they do still receive quite a bit of attention.

As trade opens with the west during this period their is also a slight shift in medium. Mulberry paper remains the paper of choice for woodblock prints but more vivid synthetic and metallic inks begin to be used in the prints. Prior to this, Edo period pigments were mainly acquired from natural sources such as plants, flowers and berries.

It is also the Meiji Period when Albumen Photography is developed. Shortly after photography is perfected the Picture Postcard follows. Many of these early photos mirror woodblock prints in their subject matter and pose.

It's interesting that many of the woodblock works were not even considered art during the Edo period and to some degree the Meiji period in which they were created. Their usage within society at the time was more along the lines of advertisements, postcards and momentos of special occasions. Exposure to the West during the Meiji period was a major factor in adding a "collector" value to the woodblock prints. When taken back to the West by early explorers to Japan demand increased greatly, and supply from Japan began to increase accordingly. The influence these prints had on western artists of the time is evident in much of the western art of the late 1800's and early 1900's. This trend continues through the Taisho (c.1912-1926) and Showa periods (c.1926-1989).

While the Bijinga woodblock artists of yesterday receive much reverence by modern society, one wonders which artists of today who are heavily influenced by the woodblock genre will stand the test of time. Bijinga artists in our modern times would have to include names such as Patrick Nagel. His drawings were regularly commissioned for special events around the world, as well as being published frequently in Playboy magazine. Contemporary artists such as Ichiro Tsuruta and Masayuki Miyata have done some wonderful work and will quite likely be remembered well into the future by art historians.

Careful that Bijinga may not be Bijinga at all! During the Edo period women were not allowed to act in plays, so a great many of the women seen in prints that depict Kabuki actors are actually men dressed as women who specialize in playing female kabuki roles. These actors are known as "Onnagata".