--- To the Beauties of Four Seasons Opening Page ---

Artist as Psychologist?


In the mid-1790's one of Japan's leading publishers of ukiyo-e prints issued an interesting series of five images created by the well-known designer Kitagawa Utamaro.

Most ukiyo-e of that era had no pretense to be anything more than decorative items, typically illustrating courtesans in lavish kimono, kabuki actors in their costumes, or 'genre' scenes, but this particular series purported to be something different; titled (in translation) 'Anthology of Poems: The Love Section', it showed portraits of women intended to illustrate different types of love, and the five prints carried the following captions:

  • Obvious Love
  • Reflective Love
  • Love that Rarely Meets
  • Deeply Hidden Love
  • Love that Meets Each Night

The women in the prints are of no obvious class or ranking and do not seem to be intended to depict courtesans; we are to see them as normal 'average' people.

But do such nuances of emotion lend themselves to ready 'illustration'? How competent was Utamaro at capturing these feelings with his brush?

The quiz offered on this web page is an attempt to try and find an answer to these questions ...

A bit of background ...

My name is David Bull, I live in Japan, and am a woodblock print 'craftsman' - that is to say, I cut blocks of wood, and print sheets of paper, making reproductions of old Japanese prints using only the original techniques. I do not usually call myself a 'printmaker', because that term has pretty much come to imply that the person also creates the imagery present on the paper.

I have been making woodblock prints professionally since the late 1980s, producing a new set of prints every year. The set I made during 2004 was the 'Beauties of Four Seasons', comprising four prints of the bijin-ga (beautiful woman picture) type.

Once the first print in the series was issued, I started to receive comments and feedback from viewers, and I realized that there were two very different ways that people were 'seeing' the prints that I was making. For one group (and I should say right up front that this includes me), prints of this type are purely decorative; the important points are colour, line, and visual effect, and the pleasure in the viewing comes from appreciation of the skill of the artist and craftsmen at creating a 'beautiful' object.

The other camp likes to look 'inside' and see more; they want to see personality, emotion, and 'meaning'.

Now I'm not such a fool as to try and claim that art cannot perform both of these functions. But I do think that by-and-large, the world has come to see much more of the second 'theme' in the Japanese prints than was actually intended by their creators. I do believe that their main purpose was decoration, pure and simple.

But what to make of this particular print series? At first glance the images are no more or less 'decorative' than any other prints of that era, but each one carries a very short descriptive caption implying that we should be looking deeper. Obviously then, these prints cannot be looked on as just decoration.

I didn't want to 'give up' quite so easily though, so I tried a little experiment with a few friends. I showed them the five images, and asked them to match the pictures with the descriptive titles. I wanted to see if there actually was enough 'feeling' visible in the finished work to enable them to be correctly matched.

The results were quite entertaining, leading me to think that a wider audience may also be interested in playing this little 'game'. I won't spoil your pleasure in the quiz by telling you at this point just how well (or poorly) viewers are able to sense the emotions that Utamaro wanted to make them feel; after your input from the entry form (below) is received, you will be shown a read-out of the correct match-ups, along with a total of the accumulated scores to date.

The small images visible on this page don't show enough detail, so enlargements have been prepared, and clicking the images at the left will 'pop' them up. If your browser cannot do that, then click on the thumbnails below instead; an enlargement will come into view, and you can return with your 'Back' button. Once you have studied them all, make your selection with the form. (You have one chance only; the quiz script will reject a second attempt!)

Decoration ... or more 'meaningful' art? You decide!

Thank you for your interest in my work!

Dave Bull, 2005

Seseragi Studio
Ome, Tokyo

When you have made your five selections,
press the button ...