“Uemura Shōen and Quintessential Bijinga, Paintings of Beautiful Women” at the Yamatane Museum of Art (29 August-22 October 2017)
Interview with Alice Gordenker by Eve Loh Kazuhara
With special thanks to Minako Takahashi (Head Curator) and Yurie Noda (Press and Public Relations) of Yamatane Museum of Art
Uemura Shōen (1875–1949) was an enduring nihonga painter who had a successful career spanning the Meiji, Taishō and early Shōwa years. Specialising in a genre known as bijinga (paintings of beautiful women), Shōen wanted to portray women not only dressed in their finest, but to express beauty from the inside out, capturing grace and resilience of women.
From 29 August through to 22 October 2017, the Yamatane Museum of Art is showcasing 18 of Shōen’s paintings alongside 70 additional works by other famous artists.
In this interview, I speak to Tokyo-based journalist and translator Alice Gordenker, who on Sept. 22 will give a guided tour in English of the museum’s current exhibition, “Uemura Shōen and the Quintessential Bijinga, Paintings of Beautiful Women.”
Eve: Alice, thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule for this email interview. Uemura Shōen (1875—1949) had a very successful career in a domain that at the time belonged largely to men. Despite the challenges, she was one of the few women to be appointed as Imperial Household artist as well as the first woman to be awarded the Order of Culture for her contribution to Japanese art. She also led a very interesting personal life, what some may say to be quite progressive for her time. Could you share with us briefly on Shōen’s background, and any personal anecdotes that stand out?
Alice: Shōen stands out in a number of ways, not the least of which is that she was very successful as an artist during her lifetime, and—as you pointed out—at a time when there were many hurdles to women working as professional artists. She never married but had a son, the future painter Uemura Shōkō, whom she raised alone with help from her mother, who was very supportive of Shōen’s career. Later, Shōen also gave birth to a daughter.
Eve: Thank you for that background on the artist. What can visitors to the museum expect to see in this exhibition?
Alice: First of all, it’s a wonderful opportunity to see a large number of Shōen’s paintings in one go. The founder of the Yamatane Museum of Art, Yamazaki Taneji (1893–1988), maintained a very close connection with Shōen, encouraged in this by his wife, who was a huge fan of her work. When Shōen would come to Tokyo from Kyoto, for example, the Yamazakis would send a car for her, and pick up the tab for her hotel and meals. This close association allowed Yamazaki to acquire an unusually large number of her paintings. The Yamatane Museum of Art’s collection boasts some of Shōen’s best known and most representative paintings, including Firefly [1933, pictured in the museum flyer above] and Kinuta [1938, pictured below]. With a total of 18 works, it is considered one of the finest Shōen collections in the world.
Eve: The exhibition is divided into four sections. What were some of the curatorial and planning considerations behind these?
Alice: I was not involved in planning the exhibition, but as head curator Takahashi Minako explains, one purpose of this exhibition was to present the museum’s complete collection of Shōen paintings together at one time. The first section of the exhibition—Uemura Shōen—Fragrant Gemlike Beauty—consists of a stunning line-up of 17 Shōen paintings. (Kinuta is displayed in the second section, Famous Women from Literature and History.)
Alice: Seeing these works in person is so much better than looking at mere reproductions, and it’s also wonderful to view the mountings—the hyōsō—which showcase the paintings so beautifully. Shōen was very particular about the mountings for her works, often selecting the fabrics herself and even directing special patterns be woven to order.
The following sections—Famous Women from Literature and History, Maiko and Geisha, and Beauties Past and Present—Chic Japanese Garb, Gorgeous Western Garb—introduce the wide range of beautiful women painted by other artists, including Edo beauties as imagined by Hishida Shunsō (1874–1911) and Ikeda Terukata (1883–1921). There are also paintings of modern women in Western garb, such as my personal favorite in this exhibition, Portrait of a Lady (1957) by Itō Shinsui (1898–1972), which unfortunately I can’t share with you here because of copyright.
Eve: There is also a substantial section on prints in the exhibition. What is the association of prints to the genre of bijinga?
Alice: As Takahashi-san explains, many paintings of beautiful women were made during the Momoyama period through to the Edo period, one result of the rising popularity of genre painting. The bijinga of the Edo period, which includes ukiyo-e, were very popular because they didn’t merely portray woman with beautiful features, but also depicted mannerisms and fashion. Unlike paintings, prints could be made in large numbers, bringing these nuanced images of beautiful women to a much larger audience while also bringing new ideas and expression to the genre. In this exhibition, there are some wonderful prints by masters such as Suzuki Harunobu, Torii Kiyonaga. Kitagawa Utamaro and Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, and you can really see the distinct styles and characteristics of each artist.
Eve: That sounds wonderful. Thank you for sharing on the exhibition and I wish I could see it. I understand your Sept. 22 tour in English is already fully subscribed. Are there plans for more tours, and if so, how can people sign up for them?
Alice: This is the first time I’ve organized a tour with the Yamatane Museum of Art, so while nothing is decided right now, we are in discussions about how we might build on this first effort. I announce all tours on Facebook and through my blog, so readers can follow either of those for new developments.
Eve: Do you also conduct tours at other museums?
Alice: I do. I should probably take this opportunity to explain that it’s quite unusual for a museum in Japan to provide guided tours in languages other than Japanese. Some museums rent headsets loaded with recorded audio tours in English, and in some cases Chinese and Korean, but these are the exception rather the rule.
Eve: I see. I used to work at the National Gallery in Singapore and I can understand the amount of work (and money!), including lead time that goes into producing audio tours in different languages.
Alice: Yes, particularly for special exhibitions with limited runs. So, while some museums do provide audio tours in foreign languages, it is even more unusual for a museum in Japan to provide an in-person gallery talk in which someone guides a group with explanation in English or other foreign languages. Museum curators in Japan are very busy, with a lot of different responsibilities, and few are comfortable giving talks in languages other than Japanese.
Eve: Can this be done by volunteers, as it is in other countries?
Alice: In principle, yes, but volunteerism isn’t as prevalent in Japan as compared to some other countries, and there isn’t currently an organised system for training museum volunteers such as the one that exists, for example, in Singapore. It’s possible that this may change at some point in the future, for example as Japan prepares for the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, which will be held in Tokyo and are expected to draw millions of foreign visitors. By the way, the Yamatane Museum of Art has been very proactive on both foreign-language tours and working with volunteers. From 2010 until quite recently a small number of volunteers, trained by museum staff, gave tours in English, French and even Italian. Unfortunately, that program came to an end when the last of the volunteers returned to her home country. But Ms. Takahashi gives English tours herself upon request, and the museum is certainly open to working with new volunteers.
Eve: Given the mentioned obstacles, how were you able to break into museum tours?
Alice: I gave my first tour in a museum in Japan in 2014, at the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum (which was then known as Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography), for an exhibition on the early Japanese photographer Shimooka Renjo. I did the translation for the exhibition, preparing not only English panels and captions, but also press releases and English-versions of reference materials that were included in a book. I worked very closely with the curator in charge, Mitsui Keishi. He was eager to share the many new findings presented in that exhibition with as wide an audience as possible, and so suggested that I give two guided tours in English. They were well attended and well received, so I have continued to give tours of his exhibitions on early Japanese photography.
Eve: I’ve seen notices for your tours at a few other museums, as well, correct?
Alice: Yes, I’ve also given a number of English tours at the Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Museum of Art, the Shoto Museum of Art and the Toguri Museum of Art, which is a wonderful small museum specializing in Ko-Imari Japanese porcelain.
Eve: As a parting note here, I’m impressed by the work you do. You are also an established journalist, a long-time columnist at The Japan Times and the author of several text books. On top of that, you translate and have been a TV producer and presenter. How do you manage so many activities?
Alice: It may seem like I do an awful lot of different things, but the common thread between all these endeavors is explaining Japan in English. This is my life work, and I intend to keep doing it as long as I get opportunities to share Japan with the world, like this one so kindly provided by the Yamatane Museum of Art.
Uemura Shōen and the Quintessential Bijinga, Paintings of Beautiful Women is at the Yamatane Museum of Art from 29 August to 22 October 2017. (Closed 19 September, 10 October, and on Mondays, except for 18 September and 9 October.)
Hours: 10 am – 5 pm (Last admission at 4:30 pm)
Admission Fees: Adults: 1,000  yen; university and high school students: 800  yen; middle school and younger children: free of charge
To stay apprised of Alice Gordenker’s various activities, and receive notice of future tours, follow her on Facebook or subscribe to her blog at https://alicegordenker.wordpress.com