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Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2001


Icons of a forgotten femininity

Western culture is replete with empowering images of women, from the warrior Amazons of Greek mythology to Wagnerian Valkyries to computer game and movie heroine Lara Croft. Western women are spoiled for choice when it comes to assertive role models. Japan, on the other hand, has always cherished a more genteel ideal of femininity. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the works of Yumeji Takehisa (1884-1934), 300 of which are currently on display at the Urawa Art Museum.

Yumeji Takehisa's works
"Megane Bashi" (1920), watercolor on paper
"The Catholic Missionary's Arrival" (1914), colors on silk
"Sisters" (undated), ink on paper

The essence of Yumeji's work is in his depictions of women, which, although graceful and elegant, present the female as a swooning, wilting, wide-eyed and passive creature. Items from the Kawamura collection on display here present a good cross section of his life's work, including prints, watercolors, inks, oils, book illustrations and even gift-wrapping paper designs.

When Yumeji, the son of a liquor merchant, started his artistic career in the late Meiji Era, Japanese art was going through an identity crisis. While some artists readily embraced foreign influences and started aping the techniques, fashions and lifestyles of the Parisian Left Bank, others clung steadfastly to the traditions of Japanese art, creating the nihonga movement that cherished the styles, subjects and materials of the past. Yumeji chose a more invidualistic middle path, receptive to foreign artistic influences and techniques, while clinging to traditional subject matter and atmosphere.

One of Yumeji's main overseas influences was the German artist Heinrich Vogeler, a member of the Jugendstil movement, which, as the Germanic incarnation of Art Nouveau, was itself heavily influenced by Japanese ukiyo-e.

In 1910, the influential Japanese art periodical Shirakaba started to publish and popularize copperplate works by Vogeler.

Yumeji was among the first struck by the wistful innocence of the German's work, and strove to achieve a similar atmosphere in pictures such as his ink drawing "Sisters," which shows two timid little girls huddling together for comfort in a train carriage.

Yumeji also attempted to emulate Vogeler's oil painting. His "Mountain Girl" (1916), a painting of a fatigued farm girl, shows the dull neutral light that the German used to flatten and balance his textures.

Although a cosmopolitan painter open to impressions from abroad, Yumeji's subject matter differed little from that of nihonga painters such as Shinsui Ito. His favorite theme was the kimono-clad beauty, a sight not yet uncommon in the streets of Taisho Era Japan. But whereas Ito's beauties are doll-like and rather rigid, Yumeji's have a beautiful, sinuous quality and an atmosphere of melancholy.

His watercolor "The Dresser" (1920), depicting a prostitute undressing before a Russian naval officer, shows harmonious flowing lines reminiscent of Edvard Munch, the Norwegian expressionist, who also influenced Yumeji.

But whereas Munch distorted backgrounds to give his figures aura and energy, Yumeji's elegant figures, like the prostitute in "The Catholic Missionary's Arrival" (1914), seem almost draped artistically onto the canvas.

This painting shows a prostitute and a priest sitting on a hillock near Nagasaki Bay. While the priest looks off into the distance, the prostitute, with an unread Bible in her hands, peers out at the viewer with a blank but appealing expression.

The sinuous shape of Yumeji's kimono-clad ladies gives them a feeling of weakness and passivity, an impression that is further underscored by their features.

The characteristic Yumeji face has much in common with Hello Kitty: Eyes are spaced widely apart, invariably creating the impression that concentration and willpower are lacking. In addition, Yumeji's beauties often have eyes that seem to droop or look away to some distant dream or memory, as if the present were somehow too painful.

Not exactly empowering images for women, then.

But to get angry would be to miss the point of the pictures. The watercolor "Megane Bashi" (1920) shows a typical swooning beauty approaching a bridge, but, with the parasol in her hand and the temperatures (outside the Urawa Art Museum, at least) well over 30 degrees, it doesn't look as if she is bowed down by social pressures and sexual inequality as much as simply wilting under the heat of a Japanese summer.

"Takehisa Yumeji: The Kawamura Collection" runs until Sept. 24 at the Urawa Art Museum, (048) 827-3215, a 7-minute walk from Urawa Station, Saitama, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Closed Monday. 630 yen, students 420 yen, junior high and elementary school students 210 yen.

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