Found in the corner of the Arts of Asia Wing at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), the exhibit “New Women for a New Age: Japanese Beauties, 1890s–1930s” went up in December 2016 and will remain on display until August 20. Past the collection of Chinese ceramics, flanked by the Japanese Buddhist Temple Room, the museum visitor finds a small room of Japanese prints, postcards and photographs from the 1890s to 1930s, all of which are portraits of women.
At its core, this exhibit tries to display the visual history of modernization as Japan opened its doors to Western influence, abandoning the isolationist policies adopted by the shogunate in the Edo period in the 17th century.
The true beauty of this exhibit is in its subtleties. The postcards and woodblock prints shown maintain the traditional Japanese pictorial conventions known as “slit-eyes and hooked nose,” in which artists rely on their precise application of line for facial expressions. Consider “Young Woman with Record Player” (1935), the most modern print of the collection and the most abstract. This print is arguably the most distinct in the collection by any stylistic metric, yet even it relies on line.
There is a definitive shift between visual cues given to the viewer via background imagery. In the earliest prints of the collection hung on the first wall, dating from the late 19th century, the artist cuts through any obstructive foreground in the “blown-away roof” manner to reveal a complete interior view. Additionally, the Edo print “No. 1, Kiritsubo” (1884) from the series “The Fifty-four Chapters” is a direct reference to the novel “The Tale of Genji” (1008), written about Heian court life in the 11th century.
As the century turns and the viewer moves onto the second walls of the exhibit, the background dissolves around the edges only to show certain elements of nature that hint at the season or the weather. Interestingly enough, these pieces seem to be the most drained of color, in contrast to the surrounding pieces that are highly saturated. The prints on this wall are “kuchi-e” or “opening pictures,” used as frontispieces for literary magazines that featured modern romantic fiction. The images would either directly refer to characters or to themes present in these stories.
Around 1920, as seen on the third and fourth wall of the exhibit, the prints are considered “shin hanga” or “new prints.” This field revitalized the popular “ukiyo-e” prints from the century prior. The background again shifts; as abstracted blocks of color, they are unattached to any physical space. They lack any distinguishable background or perspective as seen in the Western tradition of painting. With less attention given to external details, the portraits’ composition moves in closer to the women, showing their torso and head rather than the full body. Thus, the viewer has a more intimate experience with the figure. Though the prints shown at the end of the chronological tour might contain the most Westernized and modern subject matter, such as clothing, hairstyles and new technologies, they still maintain a distinct Japanese character in cohesion with the rest of the exhibit.
Most haunting is the image described as iconic: “Tipsy, No. 1” (1930) from the series “Fashions of the Modern World” shows an intoxicated woman who is barely able to keep her eyes open. Disturbingly enough, this partakes in a longer tradition of depicting woman as more attractive when inebriated. While modernization, tradition and cultural influx are all important themes in this exhibit, perhaps the most glaring is the stringent Japanese ideals of beauty: small facial features, chalky white skin, red lips and lustrous long black hair. This is an unsettling reminder that all of the artists featured are male, a distinction which the informational material in the exhibit neglects to mention.