By Hanako Brown
Japanese art in the Edo period (1603-1868) had a multitude of influences, from Heian aristocratic practises such as waka poetry and the development of literati, and Chinese impacts seen practically in styles of calligraphy and ideologically in Confucianist ideals. Unfortunately, due to criticisms from iconic Japanese art historians such as Ernest Fenollosa, and the rejection of Chinese inspired writing in the post-Edo period, the popularity of early modern Japanese literati diminished. Thereby, the works of Edo women were forgotten, until a modern resurgence of curiosity in the 1990s. Who were the female painters, poets and calligraphers who created the artworks now considered the embodiment of Edo style? By chronologically exploring prominent Japanese women artists of the period, and examining their works and personal history, I hope to give insight into the Edo art world and how female artists represented their experiences.
The Edo period gave rise to many successful women artists, those who were professional and equal in their successes to their male counterparts, but additionally the forgotten domestic artists whose interest in creative pursuits were shaped by the societal standards of the time. Deftness in painting, poetry and calligraphy were all deemed acceptable interests for women in this era. However, although the existence of female artists in the Edo period was widespread and undeniable, their subject matters and styles were somewhat corrupted by the patriarchal standards for painting at the time. In order to gain popularity and establish herself as a prominent artist, one may have to submit to the creations of popular bunjin (male literati) subjects and a limitation of techniques deemed suitable for women to emulate. Certain calligraphy styles such as the “man’s hand” and the appropriation of “male language” in poetry was considered unsuitable for women to replicate. Therefore, the Edo women artists expressed their views not from an overtly feminine perspective, but instead subliminally through their paintings. Typically, the traditional themes of these paintings would include Buddhist iconography, wildlife such as flowers, birds, and natural scenery, portraits, and scenes from classical stories, such as The Tale of Genji (1008). The Tale of Genji is influential due to its status as one of the first illustrated stories in Japanese history. The impact of this piece echoes throughout the eras, as a staple of Japanese storytelling. Centuries later in the Edo period, The Tale of Genji remains the inspiration behind numerous Edo period artworks. In the mid-seventeenth century in Japan, woodblock prints were gaining popularity, and the establishment of book publishing aided the flourishment in literacy rates. Waka poetry became the backbone of education available to samurai daughters, which in turn became the basis of female artwork of the time. Influenced by high society and female aristocrats in the Heian period, the wafū cultural tradition developed, key participants being Ono Tsūjo (1567/8-1631), and Kiyohara Yukinobu (1643-1681).
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