Exhibition: Yumeji Takehisa

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 spoilt 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 work of Yumeji Takehisa (1884-1934), whose work, currently on display at the Urawa Art Museum, is guaranteed to raise your average feminist’s blood temperature this Summer.

The essence of Takehisa’s work are his depictions of women, which, although graceful and elegant, present the female as a swooning, wilting, wide-eyed and passive creature. The 300 works here from the Kawamura collection present a good cross section of his life’s work, including prints, watercolors, inks, oils, book illustrations, and even gift paper designs.

When Yumeji, the son of an alcohol merchant, started his artistic career in the late Meiji period, 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, other artists clung steadfastly to the traditions of Japanese art, creating the 'Nihonga' movement which cherished the styles, subjects, and materials of the past. Takehisa chose to navigate a more invidualistic middle path, absorbing foreign artistic influences and techniques, while clinging to traditional subject matter and atmosphere.

One of his main foreign 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. Takehisa was among the first struck by the wistful innocence of the German’s work and strove to achieve a similar atmosphere in pictures like his ink drawing Sisters, which shows two timid little girls huddling together for comfort in a train carriage.

Takehisa 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 influences from abroad, Takehisa’s subject matter differed little from that of Nihonga painters like Shinsui Ito. His favorite theme was the kimono-clad beauty, a sight that was still not uncommon in the streets of Taisho period Japan. But whereas Ito’s beauties are doll-like and rather rigid, Takehisa’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 Takehisa. But whereas Munch distorted backgrounds to give an aura and an energy to his figures, Takehisa's elegant figures, like the prostitute in The Catholic Missionary's Arrival (1914), seem almost draped onto the painting like a roll of cloth. 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.

Their serpentine shape gives Takehisa’s kimono-clad ladies a feeling of weakness and passivity, an impression that is further enhanced by their features. The characteristic Takehisa face has much in common with Hello Kitty in that the eyes are spaced widely apart. This invariably creates an impression that concentration and willpower are lacking. In addition, Takehisa’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 this is not something we should get angry about: 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 well over 30 degrees, it doesn’t look as if she is bowed down by social pressures and sexual inequality as much as that she is wilting under the heat of a Japanese Summer.

15th August, 2001
Japan Times
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