An Edo Period Bijinga print by
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
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
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".