The performance of beauty by women – and artistic representations of that performance – during the Meiji period (1868-1912) is the subject of new academic study by Miya Elise Mizuta Lippit.
Bijin is a beautiful person, most usually by the Meiji era (and later) a beautiful woman. Bijinga is fine art featuring beautiful women. The bijinga genre was unofficially inaugurated through its presence in the 1907 Ministry of Education Art Exhibition, though it was grounded in developments over preceding decades. Lippit states that the shift in definition of bijin from a gender-neutral term to one being exclusively applicable to women is in part related to Japanese responses to foreign ideas. This accompanied other ideas, such as division of art into fine art and applied art and even the idea of a national style. “Just as the concept of a Japanese-style art (Nihonga) as such did not exist until artists started creating in the Western or non-traditional Japanese style (yōga), there was no totalizing concept of the artistic process until the modern encounter with Western aesthetics.” She concludes: “The bijin should not only be viewed, but its layers of pure covering – adornment on adornment – read as a statement on Japanese artistic style itself, a visual style that appears to have achieved a victory over the “spirit” of content: bijinga, an art that celebrates the aesthetic self-production of Japan – Japan as an artifact in the encounter between East and West.”
The birth of Nihonga and bijinga came about just as some Japanese felt the need to draw distinctions which separated its art from Western pictorial influences, which marks the intersection between nationalism and aesthetics. The categorisation of aspects of Japanese culture that had previously already existed in art could be considered an attempt to purify Japanese art and to clarify Japanese ethnic distinctiveness. Cultural critics of the late Meiji era theorised that Nihonga was characterised by idealism, in opposition to the supposed realism of Western art. Yōga cannot – because of its Western influence and greater realism – produce bijinga, which must be both Japanese in style and idealistic (and idealising) in character.
The term “geisha” appeared during the period of japonisme in the West (c. 1860-1930). Strictly speaking, a female performer and hostess and (slightly less strictly speaking) a prostitute of the Shin Yoshiwara red-light district of Tokyo, “geisha” came to be used in the West as any “beautiful Japanese woman”. For Westerners not informed about the original meaning of the word, this seems a casual elision rather than an intentional conflation of beautiful woman and prostitute. During this period, the Japanese woman as bijin who exists as a living work of art became a persistent subject for art and literature both inside and outside Japan.
The geographic and demographic distance between Japan and Europe/USA meant that what was known in the West about Japan was principally through its art. The sophistication of Japanese art and visual culture marked it out in the eyes of Westerners as a fellow civilised nation – if not an equal then certainly one worthy of respect. Visitors to Japan sometimes found the difference between the images they were used to and the reality of the extraordinarily elaborate artificiality of Japanese cosmetics repelled them. “Self-inflicted ugliness” was how one outspoken chronicler described Japanese cosmetic practice. Other travellers were simply disappointed by the reality of Japanese women, having been primed by extravagant praise.
Just as a complete woman was seen to be combination of innate qualities and effort of society (in the forms of education and culture) and effort of the individual (in the form of the acquisition of admirable skills and exercise of informed judgment), so it seems the bijin could come into being as a composite of natural beauty and unnatural beauty. It was through the grace of nature, the correct application of cosmetics and costume and exercise of decorum that the bijin came into existence. Thus when the artist of bijinga used both the model and ideal, he too created a composite.
One could also mention here the Japanese aesthetic appreciation of nature as perfected in mixtures of raw nature and tamed nature – like the bijin, that other prominent conjunction of natural and artificial beauty. There is certainly much to be written drawing out the parallels between bijin and distinctive gardens and temple grounds, all long cultivated and much celebrated as typical of Japan. In the bijin, we see the performance of beauty in an effort that is willed by both individual and the society of which she is a part. Once again – it cannot be stressed too strongly – the bijin is both self-actualisation and a product of aesthetic culture, one who necessarily fuses nature and artifice in a social performance of beauty.
In a publication for the 1904 St Louis World Fair, to which Japan sent 350 “geisha girls” as part of its pavilion, it is the nation of Japan alone that is represented by a women’s face in a montage of national/ethnic types. All other ethnic types in the illustration are represented by men. “Strategically nurtured as one of the images of the collective people as Japan was being constituted as a national subject, the nation of Japan performed its aesthetic self-production through the figure of the bijin, turning itself into a feminine artifact.” It is interesting that Japan would choose to present herself in such a way, eschewing the priestly and samurai classes and the iconic images of the Noh or Kabuki theatre, which were greatly esteemed in the country. It is the most pacific of national archetypes which we see so willingly presented by the Japanese and consumed by the West with so much alacrity. Just as the brief Russo-Japanese War was ongoing, it was the geisha who were sent by the Japanese government to enchant and beguile Americans.
In the bijin there is a necessary conflation of the real and the imaginary to produce a synthetic work of art – a melding of the two realms. It was in the figure of woman (or Woman) that an attempt was made to synthesise the natural and artificial, the actual and ideal, the universal and specific and the present and timeless, in what could be seen as what could be seen as a national achievement. The bijin could be considered a work of genius embodying national spirit and an expression of refinement of two thousand years of civilisation. The degree to which demographic isolation of Japan bred a cultural and ethnic difference from neighbouring nations – and how that influenced national standards of female beauty – is not examined in this book.
The bijinga seems to have been a matter of isolated single figures (in full-figure and portrait formats, with limited background) rather than what in West we would call genre pictures. The banning of the publication of nudes by the Japanese government in 1888 circumscribed shunga (erotic art) but may not have had a noticeable impact upon bijinga. Traditionally, the Japanese had no category of the nude as a self-contained subject. Bijinga is notably not a field of the nude figure, though this matter is only briefly touched upon here. The female nude when it appeared in Meiji art seems to have been more prominent in yōga, with its Western categories of the nude, rather than bijinga. The Japanese of the Meiji period, when introduced to nudes in Western art, adopted the artistic term of rataiga – “naked body”. This description precisely fails to convey the Western distinction between nudity and nakedness, the naked and the nude.
The author addresses the role of photographically illustrated bijin journals around 1910 and discussion of bijin by Japanese and foreign critics. There are some close readings of Japanese novels including of bijin figures. Lippit notes the importance of bijin fūzoku, namely the attendant customs, conventions and attributes of the bijin in bijinga. These allow viewers to read the pictures in a way in which our iconography allows us to interpret the symbolism of art. Some readers may wish that Lippit had further developed the issue of the conflict between timeless beauty of the bijin and the influence of ryūkō (fashion or trend). Lippit notes the etymological link between uses of ryūkō as “fashion” and “disease”. “Disease and fashion shared the characteristics of arriving from the outside, spreading rapidly, and mostly affecting urban areas. [..] It retained the sense of a dangerous current that could, in passing through a culture, potentially infect it en masse.”
This book is an absorbing study of the origins and uses of bijin in Japanese art of the Meiji period. It will feed curiosity about this subject and prompt more academic and popular studies of this fascinating topic.
Miya Elise Mizuta Lippit, Aesthetic Life: Beauty and Art in Modern Japan, Harvard University Asia Center, 2019, paperback, 315pp, 45 col. illus., $45, ISBN 978 0 674 237330 8
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