Opening Up the World of Ukiyo-e
Julie Nelson Davis
Art Historian/Professor, University of Pennsylvania
Julie Nelson Davis, America's top ukiyo-e expert, has overseen an exhibition that reunites the works of artist Utamaro for the first time in 138 years. What drives her to share the beauty of ukiyo-e?
The following are excerpts from our interview.
Utamaro is without a doubt one of the most important Ukiyo-e artists. And I think in Europe and America, they recognize his pictures and they appreciate him. You don’t know always know his name, but they know he made these pictures of beautiful women. We are really excited about this opportunity to teach people more about Utamaro and to talk about the way in which he was received in America and Europe. What I think is really important here is that we’re expanding the idea that Americans have of what is Ukiyo-e.
Utamaro’s pictures mostly focused on beautiful women, bijin, he showed a variety of women from contemporary Edo society - Wives, mothers, waitresses, all kinds of women. And he really created a kind of new catalogue of beauty for the period. Utamaro was able to combine a sort of idealization of women with gestures and attitudes that seem very natural. So you have the feeling that Utamaro perhaps walks through the town, chatted with people and then came back in the studio and made them into these beauties. He was really thinking a lot of about Edo fashion and Edo beauty. This is a part of what I really love about him - That he really captured this kind of spirit of Edo beauty at the time.
I also want people in America and Europe to understand that in the Edo period, people loved Ukiyo-e, people consumed it, they saved it, they appreciated it. Ukiyo-e showed their lives, their interests, the kinds of entertainments and activities you could enjoy in Edo. These were not just things people threw away.
I want them to look at them and understand the sort of technical mastery…I want to open up this world of Ukiyo-e to everyone.