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Dimensions:
250 × 190 mm
296 pages
Format:
Hardback
ISBN:
9781861893598
Illustrations:
114 illustrations, 66 in colour
Published:
07 Feb 2008

Utamaro and the Spectacle of Beauty Julie Nelson Davis

Japanese artist Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806) was one of the most influential artists working in the genre of ukiyo-e, ‘pictures of the floating world’, in late eighteenth-century Japan, and was widely appreciated for his prints of beautiful women. In 1804, at the height of his success, Utamaro published a set of prints related to a banned historical novel. The prints, entitled Hideyoshi and his Five Concubines, depicted the military ruler Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s wife and concubines, and consequently he was accused of insulting Hideyoshi's dignity. He was sentenced to be handcuffed for 50 days, and was perhaps even briefly imprisoned. According to some sources, the experience crushed him emotionally and ended his career as an artist.

In this book, Julie Nelson Davis draws on a wide range of period sources, makes a close study of selected print sets, and reinterprets Utamaro in the context of his times. Reconstructing the place of the ukiyo-e artist within the commercial print market, she demonstrates how Utamaro’s images participated in a larger spectacle of beauty in the city of Edo (present-day Tokyo).

Offering a new approach to issues of the status of the artist and the construction of gender, identity, sexuality and celebrity in the Edo period, this book is significant contribution to the field, and will be a key work for readers interested in Japanese arts and cultures.

‘By offering [a] new approach to the constructions of identity, to the roles of gender, sexuality and celebrity in the Edo period, Davis here makes a significant contribution to the field in showing us the constructed nature of “the spectacle of beauty” . . . her publishers have done her proud. Reaktion Books are always beautifully designed and this one, with its full-colour illustrations from all the Utamaro series, its art paper and its elegant binding is one of the best.’ – The Japan Times

‘This beautifully illustrated volume presents an engaging argument which will be of interest to a readership with prior knowledge of Edo art history.’– The Art Book

‘Davis provides a succinct and credible overview of Utamaro's career, one devoid of the romanticized drama found in most treatments of this artist . . . Drawing on the research of Edo culture specialists, Davis treats the reader to a series of interesting and informative essays on such topics as the publishing industry, the Tenmei-era gesaku community, the history of the Yoshiwara and its protocols, the pseudoscience of physiognomy, and the Kansei reforms.’ –  Monumenta Nipponica

‘Handsomely produced and copiously illustrated . . . Davis has written a book that skilfully synthesizes a broad range of historical, cultural and artistic data that underscore the degree to which the conventional understanding of the floating world artist is an illusion constructed with the collusion of the viewer. General reader and scholars alike will appreciate her careful analyses of the multi-layered visual and verbal meanings of Utamaro's most familiar print series.’ –  Print Quarterly

Utamaro and the Spectacle of Beauty makes a significant contribution to the field of ukiyo-e studies by aptly showing that past readings of Utamaro as one au fait with the life of women has limited our understanding of the complexity of social factors that led to such a construct. By approaching her reading of the ‘Utamaro style’ as the concept of a publishing industry geared to catering to the needs of the market, Davis opens up a broader reading of his work that reveals much about cultural and societal attitudes, particularly those related to the perception of women in the male-dominated Edo society.’ –  Japanese Studies


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Julie Nelson Davis is Associate Professor of East Asian Art in the Department of the History of Art at the University of Pennsylvania.