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Kitagawa Utamaro

21 September — 14 November 2010

‘Utamaro’s exquisite lines sweep and undulate across the page…’
The Observer. Read Laura Cumming’s full review.

Ikon presents a survey of woodblock prints by eighteenth century Japanese artist Kitagawa Utamaro from the collection of the British Museum. This exhibition focuses on images of women, in particular the courtesans of Yoshiwara, the regulated brothel district in Edo (now Tokyo).

Born in the mid-1750s in Edo, Utamaro was taught by Toriyama Sekien, a painter of the academic Kano school, and subsequently formed a professional partnership with master publisher Tsutaya Jūzaburō. This collaboration was key to the rise of Utamaro’s reputation as a chronicler of the Yoshiwara district and, more generally, as a leading exponent of ukiyo-e (‘pictures of the floating world’).

Images of bijinga (beautiful people), Kabuki actors, landscapes and city life were typical of ukiyo-e, espousing a life lived only for the moment. They informed, amused and distracted their audience by depicting available pleasures. Utamaro’s images of the women of Yoshiwara, often conceived in series, functioned as sophisticated advertisements or guides to a sensuous world, untroubled by overt references to the dif?culties of work and politics.

Gestures, demeanour, clothing, accessories and the décor of the womens’ accommodation, rather than their personal features, are scrutinised and described in accompanying calligraphy. Ikon also shows a number of Utamaro’s explicitly erotic works, called ‘spring pictures’ or shunga. Issued as albums of sheet prints and as illustrated books, they are unambiguous in their intention to titillate.

This exhibition is co-curated by acclaimed British artist Julian Opie and Timothy Clark, Head of the Japanese Section, British Museum. It follows Opie’s involvement with Ikon’s 2007–2008 exhibition of woodblock prints by Utagawa Hiroshige, thus re-asserting the contemporary relevance of ukiyo-e.

A catalogue accompanies the exhibition, priced £17.95

Please be aware that this exhibition includes sexually explicit imagery.