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Ogata Gekko and ukiyo-e: Japanese ladies and historical issues in his lifetime

Ogata Gekko and ukiyo-e: Japanese ladies and historical issues in his lifetime

Lee Jay Walker

Modern Tokyo Times

Ogata Gekko was a very individualistic artist and he had a rich style which was based on his upbringing.  This applies to mainly being self-taught but this can be over-played because his free spirit was from within and times were changing very quickly during his lifetime.

This article is based on images of Japanese women during a rapidly changing Japan and in the images that I focus on he clearly shows the refinement of ladies. This applies to showing nice details related to color schemes, background and the fashion and style of the day.

Ogata Gekko witnessed the changing nature of Japan because he was born in 1859 and died in 1920.  Therefore, Ogata Gekko was a small child of the Edo period and then witnessed modernization during the Meiji period from 1868 to 1912 and finally the Taisho period began in the same year of 1912.

This must have impacted greatly on Ogata Gekko and other artists because outside influence and inward Japanese identity was changing and alongside this was new technology which was changing the art world in Japan. 

Elements of rigidity during the Edo period would soon wane in his childhood and a new creative world and frightening world for many would lead to many internal convulsions. These internal issues also led to conflicts throughout Northeast Asia and it must be remembered that geography is complex when describing this region.

After all, while Japan is deemed to be firmly in Asia it must be remembered that Japan’s closest neighbor is the Russian Federation. In many ways, Japan’s political elite and dress sense in the Meiji period and Taisho period resembled a Western imperial power. Therefore, the “sleeping Japan” of the Edo period was now an expanding power and China, which had been the backbone of Japanese cultural influence, was now seen negatively and open to exploitation.

This meant that China now viewed Japan to be hostile and was one of many imperial powers which had designs on China’s wealth. The others being European powers and America may not belong to the traditional imperial club but this nation also desired a foothold in China.

Artists were also caught between tradition and modernization alongside rapidly changing cultural influences from Europe.  The interaction was not one way because Japanese artists also influenced European artists but for artists like Ogata Gekko they were bound to be influenced by all this confusion.

Natsume Kinnosuke, who lived between 1867 and 1916, sums up the cultural reality of Japan during this period of Japanese history. This applies to the fact that this important Japanese novelist was a composer of haiku, Chinese-style poetry and a deep scholar of British literature.

Kobayashi Kiyochika who was born in 1847 was firmly within the traditional ukiyo-e orbit but this individual who died in 1915 changed alongside the changing nature of Japan.  He, like Ogata Gekko, understood the need to adapt while still preserving the best of Japanese traditions. 

Richard Lane stated in Images from the Floating World, The Japanese Print, on page 193, that Kobayashi Kiyochika was “…the last important ukiyo-e master and the first noteworthy print artist of modern Japan… [or, perhaps] an anachronistic survival from an earlier age, a minor hero whose best efforts to adapt ukiyo-e to the new world of Meiji Japan were not quite enough.”

Ogata Gekko was part of this changing world and he would express this reality through his art.  Therefore, Ogata Gekko provides a glimpse into aspects of cultural change in Japan.

In his images of Japanese women related to this article it is clear that you get a sense of ambition, identity and continuity alongside cultural changes.  The images show Japanese women looking elegant, refined and clearly the embroidery and color schemes show a stunning richness.

Of course these images will mean different things to each individual and my own interpretation is that it shows a confident Japan and women coming out from the shadows. 

The onrushing of change is clearly happening but at the same time the exquisite nature of the past is being preserved.  Ogata Gekko is expressing the richness of design, fashion in this period, embroidery, and females in his images show confidence and a zest for life, amidst natural simplicity which is continuing despite all the social upheavals.

In many ways life is a mirage because what is important now does not last and all energy and power becomes lost in time.  However, irrespective if these images show a mirage of women in Japan it is not a complete mirage because high society and social status is being expressed.

The real power in these images, I believe, applies to simplicity and how space, time, cultural richness and modern Japanese women were being portrayed. Indeed, the ideal image in a sense can still be seen in modern Japan when ladies dress in traditional styles. This can be seen clearly because a lot of thought, high quality materials, color schemes and other important areas are connecting with the images which Ogata Gekko is showing. 

The cultural context is very different alongside the huge time difference but while these images may not focus on the political and working reality of Japan in the Meiji and Taisho period.  They do show a culture which is confident, stylish but within the traditions of Japan.

If you think about Coming of Age Day for Japanese ladies in modern Japan then all the symbolic images of tradition can be seen by stunning clothes which show the richness of Japanese tradition.

Therefore, just like the images by Ogata Gekko, you can see an ideal beauty within the Japanese psyche and while this form of dress is preserved for special occasions in modern Japan, you can still feel the connection of the past and how tradition is important.

Ogata Gekko expresses this elegantly and with a passion. – Stunning images from this website – Fantastic set of images which show the grace of Ogata Gekko

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