SHUNGA print by Utamaro

Kitagawa Utamaro (喜多川 歌麿, 1753 – 1806 was a Japanese printmaker and painter, who is considered one of the greatest artists of Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints. He is known especially for his masterfully composed studies of women, known as bijinga.

Utamaro produced over two thousand prints during his working career, along with a number of paintings, surimono, as well as many illustrated books, including over thirty shunga books, albums, and related publications.

His work reached Europe in the mid-nineteenth century, where it was very popular, enjoying particular acclaim in France. He influenced the European Impressionists, particularly with his use of partial views and his emphasis on light and shade. The reference to the “Japanese influence” among these artists often refers to the work of Utamaro.


SHUNGA by Bob Kessel after Utamaro




Utamaro and his Five Women / Utamaro o Meguro Gonin no Onna (1947 Japan 90mins)

The most erotic and autobiographical of Mizoguchi’s films, UTAMARO AND HIS FIVE WOMEN is considered by many critics the crowning achievement of his middle period. It was a favourite of Susan Sontag, who frequently selected it for her Carte Blanche programmes. We could not include UTAMARO in our recent Mizoguchi retrospective because no decent print was then available, but a new 35mm print was struck just in time for these screenings. The film draws many parallels between Mizoguchi and the woodblock print artist who is its subject. (Both partook of the “floating world” of geishas, and both made their reputation with portraits of women.) Amidst the frenzied world of seventeenth-century Edo, with its sprawl of brothels and bars, the printmaker Utamaro patiently, painstakingly devotes himself to his art. The “five women” of the title are his models, including a courtesan (the great Kinuyo Tanaka) who kills her unfaithful lover. When Utamaro is arrested for outraging a local magistrate and is forbidden to draw for fifty days, art becomes, as it no doubt was for Mizoguchi, a matter of life and death. UTAMARO AND HIS FIVE WOMEN ranks with the most stirring of cinema’s classics about artistic creation. “If you want to know how we really treat what people like to call ‘the art form of our times,’ you may consider the case of one of that art form’s very greatest practitioners, the late Kenji Mizoguchi. . . . The film is, among other things, the exercise of an exceptionally active and intricate intelligence” (Roger Greenspun, The New York Times).

Mizoguchi’s regular scriptwriter Yoda, who worked with him (more precisely, for him) for 20 years, claimed in his memoirs that in the script for this film he was “almost unconsciously” drawing a portrait of Mizoguchi through Utamaro. The equation Utamaro=Mizoguchi has been irresistible to most critics as the two artists did have a lot in common. Both of them worked in a popular mass-produced medium operated by businessmen, and chafed under oppressive censorship regimes; both frequented the pleasure quarters and sought the company of geishas; but, most significantly, they both achieved fame for their portraits of women. In a highly charged scene in this film, Utamaro paints, directly on the back of a beautiful courtesan, a sketch that is later tattooed into her skin. One could say that this creative act (and the passion the artist displays in executing it) literalises the fact that both artists achieved fame on the backs of women – relying on them to arouse and express themselves, emotionally and aesthetically.

The five women of the title – the refined courtesan Tagasode, the fiery geisha Okita, the respectable artist’s daughter Yukie, the shy peasant girl Oran and the plain artisan Oshin – cover a range of feminine types and personalities but they are alike in two respects. They all actively pursue the object of their desire, however puny he may be. They also share a respect for the power of Utamaro to make them famous in life, if not posthumously, to render them eternally young and beautiful. (These women had in fact very brief careers. Under the ruthless system of exploitation that operated in the pleasure quarters, young bodies were required. In the rapid turnover of staffing, they would be soon discarded and replaced by younger women.)

The film exposes both their pathetic vanity and the brutal lust and voyeurism of the male artist – who is often one of their clients, and certainly a servant of the system that exploits them. In the two crucial scenes when Utamaro, who has been suffering from a creative block, is first turned on and then artistically inspired by the bare body of young Oran, Mizoguchi prefigures and extends (beyond the West) the thesis of John Berger and the whole feminist critique of the functioning of the female body in art.



2 square BIJIN BLOSSOMS print by Bob Kessel

BIJINGA (美人画) is a generic term for pictures of beautiful women in Japanese art, especially in woodblock printing of the ukiyo-e genre, which predate photography. The term can also be used for modern media, provided they conform to a somewhat classic representation of a woman, usually depicted wearing a kimono.

Nearly all ukiyo-e artists, including Hokusai and Hiroshige, produced BIJINGA, it being one of the central themes of the genre. However, a few, including Utamaro, Suzuki Harunobu, Toyohara Chikanobu, and Torii Kiyonaga are widely regarded as the greatest innovators and masters of the form.

Bob Kessel has created a new art series titled, “BIJINGA” based on the Ukiyo-e  genre wood block prints.
The pictures are available as limited edition original fine art prints, signed and numbered by the artist.
Contact Bob Kessel for prices and availability.



by Bob Kessel



by Bob Kessel



by Bob Kessel



by Bob Kessel



by Bob Kessel



by Bob Kessel



by Bob Kessel



by Bob Kessel



by Bob Kessel



by Bob Kessel





Bob Kessel has created a new art series titled, “BIJINGA” based on the Ukiyo-e  genre wood block prints. The pictures are available as limited edition fine art prints, signed and numbered by the artist. Contact Bob Kessel for prices and availability.

Bijinga (美人画) is a generic term for PICTURES OF BEAUTIFUL WOMEN in Japanese art, especially in woodblock printing of the ukiyo-e genre, which predate photography. The term can also be used for modern media, provided they conform to a somewhat classic representation of a woman, usually depicted wearing a kimono.




HOKUSAI by Bob Kessel

Katsushika Hokusai (葛飾北斎,  1760–1849 was a Japanese artist, ukiyo-e painter and printmaker of the Edo period. Born in Edo (now Tokyo), Hokusai is best-known as author of the woodblock print series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (富嶽三十六景, c. 1831) which includes the iconic and internationally recognized print, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, created during the 1820s. Hokusai created the “Thirty-Six Views” both as a response to a domestic travel boom and as part of a personal obsession with Mount Fuji. It was this series, specifically The Great Wave print and Fuji in Clear Weather, that secured Hokusai’s fame both within Japan and overseas. As historian Richard Lane concludes, “Indeed, if there is one work that made Hokusai’s name, both in Japan and abroad, it must be this monumental print-series…” While Hokusai’s work prior to this series is certainly important, it was not until this series that he gained broad recognition and left a lasting impact on the art world. It was also The Great Wave print that initially received, and continues to receive, acclaim and popularity in the Western world.


By 1800, Hokusai was further developing his use of ukiyo-e for purposes other than portraiture. He had also adopted the name he would most widely be known by, Katsushika Hokusai, the former name referring to the part of Edo where he was born and the latter meaning, ‘north studio’. That year, he published two collections of landscapes, Famous Sights of the Eastern Capital and Eight Views of Edo. He also began to attract students of his own, eventually teaching 50 pupils over the course of his life.

He became increasingly famous over the next decade, both due to his artwork and his talent for self-promotion. During a Tokyo festival in 1804, he created a portrait of the Buddhist priest Daruma said to be 600 feet (180 m) long using a broom and buckets full of ink. Another story places him in the court of the Shogun Iyenari, invited there to compete with another artist who practiced more traditional brush stroke painting. Hokusai’s painting, created in front of the Shogun, consisted of painting a blue curve on paper, then chasing a chicken across it whose feet had been dipped in red paint. He described the painting to the Shogun as a landscape showing the Tatsuta River with red maple leaves floating in it, winning the competition.

In 1820, Hokusai changed his name yet again, this time to “Iitsu,” a change which marked the start of a period in which he secured fame as an artist throughout Japan (though, given Japan’s isolation from the outside world during his lifetime, his fame overseas came after his death). It was during the 1820s that Hokusai reached the peak of his career. His most famous work, 36 Views of Mount Fuji, including the famous Great Wave off Kanagawa, dated from this period. It proved so popular that Hokusai later added ten more prints to the series. Among the other popular series of prints he published during this time are A Tour of the Waterfalls of the Provinces and Unusual Views of Celebrated Bridges in the Provinces. He also began producing a number of detailed individual images of flowers and birds, including the extraordinarily detailed Poppies and Flock of Chickens.

The next period, beginning in 1834, saw Hokusai working under the name “Gakyō Rōjin Manji” (The Old Man Mad About Art). It was at this time that Hokusai produced One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji, another significant landscape series.

In the postscript to this work, Hokusai writes:

“From around the age of six,
I had the habit of sketching from life.
I became an artist,
and from fifty on began producing works that won some reputation,
but nothing I did before the age of seventy was worthy of attention.
At seventy-three, I began to grasp the structures of birds and beasts,
insects and fish, and of the way plants grow.
If I go on trying,
I will surely understand them still better by the time I am eighty-six,
so that by ninety I will have penetrated to their essential nature.
At one hundred, I may well have a positively divine understanding of them,
while at one hundred and thirty, forty, or more I will have reached the
stage where every dot and every stroke I paint will be alive.
May Heaven, that grants long life,
give me the chance to prove that this is no lie.”

In 1839, disaster struck as a fire destroyed Hokusai’s studio and much of his work. By this time, his career was beginning to wane as younger artists such as Andō Hiroshige became increasingly popular. But Hokusai never stopped painting, and completed Ducks in a Stream at the age of 87.

Constantly seeking to produce better work, he apparently exclaimed on his deathbed,

“If only Heaven will give me just another ten years…
Just another five more years,
then I could become a real painter.”

He died on May 10, 1849, and was buried at the Seikyō-ji in Tokyo (Taito Ward).

A short four years after Hokusai’s death, an American fleet led by Matthew C. Perry sailed into Tokyo Bay and forced Japan to open its arms to the west. Hokusai’s career spanned the last age of Japanese history before its interaction with the west would change the course of the nation.


HOKUSAI self-portrait

UKIYO-E by Bob Kessel


FUJI FOG by Bob Kessel

Bob Kessel’s art series “100 VIEWS” is based on Japanese UKIYO-E woodblock prints. These pictures are available as signed and numbered limited edition fine art prints. Contact Bob Kessel for pricing and availability.

Ukiyo-e (浮世絵), “pictures of the floating world”, is a genre of Japanese woodblock prints (or woodcuts) and paintings produced between the 17th and the 20th centuries, featuring motifs of landscapes, tales from history, the theatre, and pleasure quarters. It is the main artistic genre of woodblock printing in Japan.

Usually the word ukiyo is literally translated as “floating world” in English, referring to a conception of an evanescent world, impermanent, fleeting beauty and a realm of entertainments (kabuki, courtesans, geisha) divorced from the responsibilities of the mundane, everyday world; “pictures of the floating world”, i.e. ukiyo-e, are considered a genre unto themselves.

The art form rose to great popularity in the metropolitan culture of Edo (Tokyo) during the second half of the 17th century, originating with the single-color works of Hishikawa Moronobu in the 1670s. At first, only India ink was used, then some prints were manually colored with a brush, but in the 18th century Suzuki Harunobu developed the technique of polychrome printing to produce nishiki-e.

Ukiyo-e were affordable because they could be mass-produced. They were mainly meant for townsmen, who were generally not wealthy enough to afford an original painting. The original subject of ukiyo-e was city life, in particular activities and scenes from the entertainment district. Beautiful courtesans, bulky sumo wrestlers and popular actors would be portrayed while engaged in appealing activities. Later on landscapes also became popular. Political subjects, and individuals above the lowest strata of society (courtesans, wrestlers and actors) were not sanctioned in these prints and very rarely appeared. Sex was not a sanctioned subject either, but continually appeared in ukiyo-e prints. Artists and publishers were sometimes punished for creating these sexually explicit shunga.