Japan art and Utamaro: Birds and political clampdown

Japan art and Utamaro: Birds and political clampdown 

Lee Jay Walker

Modern Tokyo Times

The Japanese artist Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806) had a passion for art. Immediately, when hearing his name, your mind conjures up images of women (bijin-ga) being depicted by Utamaro.

However, in this article, the focus is on birds and the political clampdown of the late stages of his life. Hence, the last period of Utamaro’s life was full of sadness and foreboding.

In the first art piece, you have a long-tailed tit (enaga) and two Japanese white-eyes (mejiro). This is followed above by the delightful wren (misosazai) and the snipe (Shigi) on the ground. 

All these images of birds were composed in the folding album called “Momo Chidori Kyoka Awase” (“Myriad Birds Compared in Humorous Verse”). Also, kyoka poems with playful themes were added.

However, unlike the two mallard ducks (kamo), the kingfisher (Kawasemi), and all the birds depicted by Utamaro, he would find little tranquility in the last few years of his life. 

His patron and friend, Tsutaya Juzaburo, died in 1797. This saddened Utamaro greatly. Then in 1804, he was briefly imprisoned for depicting Toyotomi Hideyoshi in a negative light. This concerns Hideyoshi being seen with prostitutes in Utamaro’s art.

Utamaro never fully recovered from his ordeal. Thus the 50 days of being handcuffed during his house arrest created enormous mental stress. Other artists also faced the wrath of the Edo political clampdown concerning increasing censorship.

Unlike the jay (kashidori) bird and boreal owl (Fukurô) above – and all the birds in this article depicted in the Momo Chidori Kyoka Awase in 1790 – Utamaro felt the pain of confinement. This concerns artistic, mental, and physical confinements that began in the late stages of his life. 

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