The Denver Art Museum (DAM) presents Her Brush: Japanese Women Artists from the Fong-Johnstone Collection through May 13, 2023. The exhibition takes a nuanced approach to questions of artistic voice, gender and agency through more than 100 works of painting, calligraphy, and ceramics from 1600s to 1900s Japan.
Many of the artworks will be on view for the first time to the public. Tracing the pathways women artists forged for themselves in their pursuit of art, Her Brush explores the universal human drive of artistic expression as self-realization, while navigating cultural barriers during times marked by strict gender roles and societal regulations. These historical social restrictions served as both impediment and impetus to women pursuing artmaking in Japan at the time.
Her Brush showcases works by renowned artists such as Kiyohara Yukinobu 清原雪信 (1643–1682), Ōtagaki Rengetsu 太田垣蓮月 (1791–1875), and Okuhara Seiko 奥原晴湖 (1837–1913) as well as relatively unknown yet equally remarkable artists like Ōishi Junkyō 大石順教 (1888–1968), Yamamoto Shōtō 山本緗桃 (1757–1831) and Katō Seikō 加藤青湖 (fl. 1800s).
“This stunning exhibition brings forward the ideas of autonomy, legacy and a person’s ownership of their individual story,” Christoph Heinrich, Frederick and Jan Mayer Director of the DAM, said. “This body of artwork has never been presented to our communities. Most importantly, the exhibition aligns with the museum’s ongoing commitment and mission of elevating voices of overlooked artists and their art.”
The exhibition was conceived by Professor Andrew L. Maske, Wayne State University, and co-curated by Dr. Einor K. Cervone, Associate Curator of Asian Art at the DAM.
“Her Brush questions established art historical tropes and rethinks the canon itself,” Cervone, who joined the DAM September 2021, said. “Since Patricia Fister’s groundbreaking exhibition, Japanese Women Artists: 1600–1900, in 1988, no exhibition has addressed the subject on this scale. It offers an alternative art historical narrative that is inclusive, nuanced and complete.”
Interactive components facilitate a personal, intimate connection between the visitor, the artwork and the Japanese women artists. Paintings, calligraphy and ceramic works of art are presented through the lens of the exceptional individuals behind them, with biographical focuses that tell the stories of their makers interspersed throughout the galleries. A rich roster of public engagement programs, symposia and artist visits will accompany the exhibition.
Her Brush is organized into seven sections representing different realms in which Japanese women artists found their voice and made their stamp on art history. Subtle design choices borrowing from traditional architecture and materials—such as paper & ink, plastered walls, sliding doors and tokonoma niches— distinguish and allude to each of the spheres presented in the exhibition.
An introduction space presents the two major themes of the exhibition: artists’ pathways to art, and art as agency. Each gallery evokes a different cultural context, within and through which artists pursued their art. Whether being born into a family of professional artists or becoming a nun for the freedom to produce art, the groupings do not pigeonhole the artists as identities. Instead, they highlight how women navigated their personal journeys as artists.
In Her Brush, many of the artists can and do appear in more than one section, shuttling through these spheres, despite the strict limitations imposed on them by the time’s gender roles and class hierarchies.
The Inner Chambers (ōoku 大奥)
“The Inner Chambers” refer to the secluded areas where women primarily resided within the courts and castles of the upper class. The term became synonymous with women and reveals the gender segregation in the upper echelons of early modern Japan. Daughters born into elite and wealthy households studied the fundamentals of “The Three Perfections” (painting, poetry and calligraphy). This artistic education was intended to prepare them to be proper companions for the men in their lives; they were not expected to become working artists.
This section includes works by exceptionally driven and talented women who leveraged their unique access to education to become artists in their own right. Included in this section are works by Nakayama Miya 中山三屋 (1840–1871), Oda Shitsushitsu 織田瑟瑟 (1779–1832) and Ono no ozū 小野お通 (1559/68–before 1650).
Daughters of The Ateliers (onna eshi 女絵師)
In the third section, “Daughters of The Ateliers,” visitors will glimpse the world of professional artists. Painting traditions were commonly passed down in the form of apprenticeships or from father to son. In this manner, some lineages endured for centuries. These professional painters subsisted through the patronage of wealthy clients. Artists in this section emerged from artistic families and, thanks to their talent and tenacity, established themselves as successful professional artists themselves. They were able to continue their family’s artistic legacy, while developing a distinctive style and voice.
Included in this section are works by Kiyohara Yukinobu, Nakabayashi Seishuku 中林清淑 (1829–1912) and Hirata Gyokuon 平田玉蘊 (1787–1855).
Taking the Tonsure (shukke 出家)
The fourth section sheds light on the world and work of Buddhist nun artists. Taking the tonsure, the shearing of one’s hair to join a Buddhist monastic order, was a symbolic act of leaving one’s past behind and becoming a nun. Shukke literally translates to “leaving one’s home.”
Subverting expectations, this section brings works by Tagami Kikusha 田上菊舎 (1753–1826), Ōtagaki Rengetsu, Daitsū Bunchi 大通文智 (1619–1697) and others for whom taking the tonsure did not mean relinquishing autonomy. On the contrary, it offered them a form of liberation from societal expectations, such as “The Three Obediences (sanjū 三従)” of a woman to her father, husband and son. It also enabled nuns to travel freely in times of state-imposed restrictions, which especially impacted women. Above all, it allowed them the freedom to pursue their art. Leaving their old names behind and taking new names as ordained nuns, these artists crafted new identities for themselves.
Floating Worlds (ukiyo 浮世)
“The floating world” refers to the state-sanctioned quarters or urban entertainment districts, which catered to male patrons who frequented the teahouses, brothels and theaters. The term alludes to the ephemeral nature of this realm. Entering it, whether as a musical performer (geisha), an actor or a sex worker, meant leaving behind one’s name and constructing a new persona. Entertainers often cycled through several stage names, inventing and reinventing themselves time and again.
Being well-versed in “The Three Perfections” was a coveted trait in women of the floating world, adding to their allure. Some, however, transcended the strict confines of the pleasure quarters, sometimes even undoing their indentured servitude, becoming important artists and leaving their literal mark by creating artworks that were collected and cherished for generations. Alongside calligraphy by Tayū, commonly translated as “grand courtesans,” this section introduces works by the “Three Women of Gion,” who were not sex workers but rather owners of a famous teahouse. The three became formidable artists, in effect forming a matriarchal artistic lineage.
Literati Circles (bunjin 文人)
The sixth section, “Literati Circles (bunjin 文人),” features literati societies united by a shared appreciation for China’s artistic traditions. For these intellectuals and art enthusiasts, art was a form of social intercourse. Together, they composed poetry, painted and inscribed calligraphy for one another. Literati painting (bunjinga 文人画) prioritized self-expression over technical skill. Following this understanding of the brushstroke as an expression of one’s true self, artists in this section conveyed their identity and personhood through art.
As in other social contexts explored in this exhibition, literati circles included women from diverse backgrounds. More so than any other sphere introduced in this exhibition, literati circles were accepting of women participants. Many prominent women artists in Edo and Meiji Japan flourished within these intellectual cliques, including Okuhara Seiko, Noguchi Shōhin 野口小蘋 (1847–1917), Ema Saikō 江馬細香(1787–1861) and Tokuyama (Ike) Gyokuran 徳山(池)玉瀾 (1727–1784), the latter being one of the Three Women of Gion.
Unstoppable (No Barriers) (mukan 無関) – conclusion to Her Brush
The concluding section, “Unstoppable (No Barriers) (mukan 無関),” takes its name from a double-sided screen by Murase Myōdō 村瀬明道 (1924–2013). On one side, it reads: “no,” or “nothingness.” On the other side, it reads “barriers.” When considered together, the two characters spell “unstoppable,” or “no barriers” (mukan). Each of the works in this gallery, including paintings and calligraphy by Takabatake Shikibu 高畠式部 (1785–1881), Ōtagaki Rengetsu and Ōishi Junkyō, addresses the subject of perseverance, overcoming personal and societal obstacles, and shattering the glass ceiling.
“Taking up the brush
just for the joy of it,
writing on and on, leaving behind
long lines of dancing letters.”
—Ōtagaki Rengetsu 太田垣蓮月
About the Fong-Johnstone Collection and Study Collection
Artworks showcased in Her Brush: Japanese Women Artists from the Fong-Johnstone Collection were selected from a generous gift of more than 550 artworks donated by Dr. John Fong and Dr. Colin Johnstone. A large percentage of the works featured in this expansive gift were created by women artists. This collection, housed at DAM, will be used for both exhibition and as a study collection, which will be made accessible to students and specialists alike.
The Fong-Johnstone Collection and Study Collection are dedicated to advancing scholarship, the study of connoisseurship and to raising public awareness of this much overlooked body of works.