My version of an Utamaro lithograph...

The idea of applying the tempera painting skills to a Ukiyo-i design by the Japanese lithographer Utamaro, has been with me ever since my first icon painting class.  The more I learn about the significance of the icon painting process, the less I am inclined to use it for the purpose. The result would be visually beautiful, but the technique of icon painting and the colours used, is intended for spiritual development. Though Utamaro produced some exquisitely beautiful prints of insects, birds and shells, his favourite subject was women and unfortunately, his themes were often well 'carnal' to say the least. So, I decided to come to a compromise - to use gessoed panels for the art work and create my own version of the Yoshiwara Sparrow dance and in doing so, learn the process used by the master.

See Utamaro's  original version below:

Utamaro's Yoshiwara Sparrow Dance

The development of my gessoed panel is as below:

Though my initial intention was to paint in the hair and also add a gold leaf decoration to the fabric and/or fan, I think I will leave the painting as it is.  Unfortunately, I researched it after I made the colour and design decisions for my own version, so the colouring is just plain "wrong" if you are a purist and want to regard it as a copy. Also, I left out parts of the headdress simply because I found it fussy for what I wanted to do with it, but I enjoyed the experience of trying to follow in the footsteps of a master and the story behind the original woodcut is interesting, so here it is:

Kitagawa Utamaro lived between 1753 and 1806 and is considered to be one of the greatest woodblock artists of ukiyo-i or ukiyo-e (floating world) prints. He is known in the West by the Romanised version of his name, Outamaro. The subjects of his paintings were mainly bijinga (beautiful women) who were often low status - such as tea-house waitresses, courtesans (geishas) and prostitutes (oiran) in Yoshiwara which was the pleasure district of Tokyo (which was known at Edo at the time).  This was a radical subject theme in the society in which he lived and more so, because he often depicted their vulnerability and beauty. So, in that sense he was (almost) a feminist if you want to stretch the truth a bit.  It probably isn't appropriate to use that label when describing someone who belonged to a culture and mindset so far removed from the concept of feminism. Additionally, some of his woodblocks were frankly pornographic.

The Yoshiwara Sparrow dance shows a woman wearing a sleeveless jacket of pink and green covered with flying birds.  Apparently this costume was typical of a bird seller which is what she probably was.  She holds a yellow and green fan with a floral pattern in her right hand and wears a sheer green silk cap, tied under her chin with a pin ribbon. Her hair is held in place by wooden hairpins as was the fashion of the time. The background of the wood cut was an off-white mica.

The woodblock regarding the Sparrow Dance is intriguing, especially as a dance of this name (Suzeme Odori) is still performed today. Though I was unable to pin down the actual the story behind Utamaro's woodcut, the contemporary dance is also based on fluttering movements of the Eurasian tree sparrow is performed annually, in mid-May, at the Aoba festival in Sendai, Miyagi prefecture. For an idea of what this looks like check out this: Link to the sparrow dance on Utube. The dance was first improvised by the stonemasons constructing the Sendai Castle for the Daimyo Date Sasamune - as the emblem of the Date clan includes two tree sparrows. 


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