Page:A history of Japanese colour-prints by Woldemar von Seidlitz.djvu/305

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THE PERIOD OF UTAMARO

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2. Utamaro.—Utamaro is the Japanese artist who, after Hokusai, is best known to us. Although the elongated heads of the women with their narrow slits of eyes, hardly perceptible mouths, and huge coiffure which towers upward and broadens out at each side, can give us absolutely no idea of the real artistic ability of the man, since they belong to the time of the complete decay and degeneration of his art into mannerism, nevertheless these pictures, produced by him in hundreds and therefore so widely circulated, must be regarded as characteristic examples of the style and taste which prevailed in Japan about the close of the eighteenth century, and which were mainly due to the influence of Utamaro himself. Art, at that time, had passed during a hundred years through all its various stages, from the powerful-heroic by way of the graceful-delicate to the classically simple beauty of Kiyonaga, the most perfect master of Japan and the immediate predecessor of Utamaro, and was now, at the beginning of the last decade of the eighteenth century, fallen into a state of feverish excitement, which has not unjustly been compared to the close of the nineteenth century in Europe, in its search for new and unheard-of effects. Health and naïveté had been lost, and their places taken by morbid susceptibility which nothing but the extreme of subtlety and refinement could satisfy, even to the dissolution of all natural principles and, in art, the abrogation of all fidelity to nature. As with us, the causes of this phenomenon are not to be sought for primarily in the exigencies of art as such, but in a general change, under stress from without, of the modes of life and thought. In the sphere of art Utamaro now appeared in Japan as the man of destiny, who should actualise all the new powers that were in the air and demanded concrete embodiment. Woman had always played a prominent part in the popular art of the country, but now Utamaro placed one type of the sex in the absolute centre of all attention, the type, namely, of the courtesan initiated into