Japanese art and ukiyo-e: Nishikawa Sukenobu and women
Lee Jay Walker
Modern Tokyo Times
The printmaker Nishikawa Sukenobu (1671-1750) was unusual by ukiyo-e standards because he was based in the imperial city of Kyoto and therefore he was an “outsider” in some ways. However, this fact also gave him more freedom to focus on his own style and many of his images of Japanese women appear to be more natural and unassuming. Therefore, Sukenobu is an extremely interesting character.
Sukenobu gained much acclaim from his Appreciating 100 Women (Hyakunin joro shinasadame) because he focused on the entire spectrum. This applies to focusing on imperial aspects, like the empress, to females involved in the sex trade and the images he produced have a very realistic feel about them.
Also, with Sukenobu focusing on women from various different classes then he opens up the reality of old Japan. This in itself is very fascinating because it provides glimpses into the Edo period and this applies to stratification, roles of women, and freedom of women in Japan in this period. Therefore, the Hyakunin joro shinasadame is very important with regards to not only art but because it also relates to social issues and thought patterns of the day.
During the early life of Sukenobu he was trained in the styles of Kano and Tosa and these schools obviously impacted on him. The Kyoto angle is also fascinating because you didn’t have many ukiyo-e artists from this very rich cultural city and clearly he led a life which was extremely rewarding.
Sukenobu also highlights aspects of fashion with regards to elegant kimono designs. Indeed, many kimono-makers commissioned Sukenobu because of his creativity and the fact that he focused heavily on beautiful women and their lifestyle. Therefore, kimono-makers believed rightly that he could focus on new textile designs and this fact highlights the popularity of his work.
He also concentrated on the desires and pleasures of women in Kyoto and this aspect shows that women had more sexual freedom in the Edo period, than in the “Christian world” and “Islamic world” in the same period of history. This meant that his romantic fictions could delve more deeply because of more openness in Japan when it came to sexual expressions and norms.
Therefore, despite the perils of stratification in the Edo period, and the same applies to the vast majority of nations in the same period of history, it does appear that other areas were more liberal. This fact enabled Sukenobu to focus on areas of interest and to highlight aspects of Kyoto and Japan during his lifetime. Also, the focus on romantic themes, kimono fashion, ladies of various different social backgrounds, and other areas, does provide valuable information and all within the stunning art of Sukenobu.
Censorship was a problem throughout the Edo period and many artists got into trouble because of aspects of their art. However, on a personal level “the gate was open” in special quarters and to people who had access to indulge in highlighting elements within Japanese culture.
Richard Lane commented that “Sukenobu’s style was profoundly influential, and characterized by a “subdued conception of lovely, unobtrusive grace (perhaps closer to actual Japanese womanhood than that of any other artist”.
This comment by Richard Lane is a powerful compliment and testimony to the integrity of Sukenobu. Of course, Sukenobu focused on other themes but his images of women in this period was enlightening. Therefore, today lovers of Japanese art can enter “a window” of old Japan which is realistic and done in style.