“Why weren’t there great women artists?” wrote Linda Nochlin in her influential 1971 essay on feminist art history.
Throughout history, women around the world have faced cultural, social, and institutional barriers to becoming great artists in patriarchal societies. Despite their talent, they were systematically underrepresented and excluded from the male-dominated canon of art history.
This is particularly true in pre-modern Japan during the Edo period (1603-1867), where women held a subordinate role prescribed by Confucianism’s “Three Obeys”—the principle that women must obey their father, husband, and son . Yet despite these strict gender roles and societal restrictions, some notable women have broken through these barriers to make their mark on Japanese art history.
Her legacy lives on in the Denver Art Museum’s newest exhibition, Her Brush: Japanese Women Artists from the Fong-Johnstone Collection, which opened November 13.
The exhibition consists of 100 paintings, calligraphy, and ceramics by about 30 artists from the 17th to 19th centuries, including 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).
“It’s an exploration of how art can be a vehicle of empowerment, a way of taking space as a woman in a patriarchy, and how these artists have inscribed themselves into our present through their art,” said Dr. Einor Cervone, Associate Curator of Asian Art at DAM and co-curator of Her Brush.
Her Brush is the largest exhibition in the United States devoted to premodern Japanese women artists in over three decades, since Patricia Fister’s exhibition Japanese Women Artists 1600-1900 at the University of Kansas Spencer Museum of Art in 1988.
Many of the works in Her Brush, acquired in 2018 from the private collections of Dr. John Fong and Dr. Colin Johnstone will be on public display for the first time in centuries.
Many of these pre-modern female artists have received little or no recognition – even in Japan. This is the result of a variety of historical and contemporary factors, including the lack of archival documentation about her life and legacy, and the anti-feminist bias present in many arts institutions in Japan.
After a wave of feminism shook Japan’s art world in the 1990s, a widespread conservative backlash began in the early 2000s, making it increasingly difficult to associate the words “feminism” and “gender,” according to Stephanie Su, assistant professor of Asian art history use at the University of Colorado Boulder. Su’s research encompasses global modernity, historiography, and the history of collecting and displaying in modern Japan and China.
On November 3, Su joined Cervone and Patricia Graham, a research fellow at the University of Kansas Center for East Asian Studies, for a panel discussing DAM’s “Her Brush” and the role of women artists in the 17th-century art world. century to modern times. The panel, titled “Notable Japanese Artists and Craftswomen in a Male-Dominated World,” was hosted by the Center for Asian Studies and History Department at CU Boulder.
“Many institutions don’t like the term feminism,” Su said. “They think that adding a gender perspective to Japanese culture is forcing western ideas on it. Second, many [contemporary art critics] think that there are no great women artists [from the past]. They believe it is historical truth. As a result, many female scientists do not feel valued.”
Despite this biased perspective in many of Japan’s mainstream institutions, art historians and curators in America and elsewhere around the world have worked to challenge the gendered status quo of Japanese art history.
“Her Brush” marks a significant milestone for this movement. Divided into seven thematic sections, the exhibition contextualizes the work of women artists based on their identity and social class, rather than by subject or era. The first section, “The Inner Chambers” (ōoku 大奥), illustrates how upper-class women born into elite and wealthy households were schooled in the “three perfections” (poetry, painting, and calligraphy) in order to serve at court to entertain and be a suitable companion for their future husbands. Although most were amateur artists, a few exceptionally talented and resourceful aristocratic women became professionals.
Another section, “Tonsure” (shukke 出家), presents the work of Buddhist nuns. In the Edo period, nuns, while enjoying even fewer rights than monks, enjoyed greater social status and autonomy than lay women. This allowed them to freely pursue their passion for creating art. The other sections weave different identities, including women born into the artist profession as “daughters of the ateliers”, the intellectuals of “Literati Circles” (bunjinga 文人画) and the musical performers (geisha 芸者), actresses and sex workers in the “Floating Worlds” (ukiyo 浮世), state-sanctioned entertainment districts.
Despite the diversity of these women’s experiences, their persistence and resourcefulness are a common thread across social classes and time.
“A lot of the artists [in this exhibit] show what it means to live a life without barriers,” said Su. “Your stories can be very inspiring for everyone, especially for those who have faced many challenges in life.”
Widely regarded as one of the greatest Japanese poets of the 19th century, Buddhist nun Rengetsu has faced many hardships throughout her life. At the age of 13, she lost her adoptive brother and adoptive mother. Over the next 30 years, most of her close family members died, including her four children, two husbands, and two adopted siblings. When her adoptive father died, she left his temple and began selling pottery decorated with her poems to make a living. Her masterful work was soon in great demand. DDuring her lifetime, every household in Kyoto is said to have owned at least one of her pottery works.
The Tonsured section reflects the importance of Rengetsu’s legacy. The centerpiece of this section, Rengetsu’s 19th-century “Travel Journal to Arashiyama (Arashiyama hana no ki)” features freely painted poetry interspersed with minimalist illustrations. This diary offers an intimate insight into her private life. Nearby appears an imaginary portrait of Rengetsu Working in Her Hut, painted 60 years after the artist’s death by Suganuma Ōhō 菅沼大鳳 (1891–1966) as a tribute to her legacy.
This section also features the works of Ōishi Junkyō 大石順教 (1888–1968), known as the mother of the handicapped who established herself as a missionary, social worker, and talented artist. Junkyō received recognition for her mouth-painted paintings, a style she adopted in order to find her way around as a two-armed amputee – a tragic result of an attack by her foster father when she was a teenager.
In Her Brush, Junkyō’s mid-20th-century work Willow and Frog depicts the uplifting story of courtier Ono no Tōfū 小野道風 (894–964). After failing to get a promotion seven times, Tōfū wanted to quit – until he found inspiration in a determined frog trying to jump onto a willow branch. The frog failed seven times before finally succeeding on the eighth attempt, inspiring the courtier to persevere and eventually become a successful statesman.
The final section of the exhibition, Unstoppable (No Barriers) features another Buddhist nun with an inspiring story: Murase Myōdō 村瀬明道尼 (1924-2013). Myōdō, who lost her arm and right leg in a traffic accident in her late 30s, refused to let her physical limitations keep her from her creative pursuits. During her recovery, she taught herself to use her left hand to create masterful calligraphy. Her works “Mu (No, or Nothing)” and “Kan (Barrier)” (無関), with the two characters painted on opposite sides of the table screen, offer a visual representation of the expansion beyond physical boundaries.
“Mu (No or Nothing) and Kan (Barrier)”, Murase Myōdō (Courtesy Denver Art Museum)
“Mu (No or Nothing) and Kan (Barrier)”, Murase Myōdō (Courtesy Denver Art Museum)
The inspirational stories of these three women and others can be found in multiple locations throughout the exhibit on collectible tanzaku (colorful poem sheets) designed by Denver-based artist Sarah Fukami. Traditionally, tanzaku, written by men and women from many walks of life, were given as gifts—or hung on bamboo branches at festivals to grant wishes. Fukami’s modernized tanzaku, intended to appeal to a younger audience, are formatted much like a trading card, with the artist’s portrait and a brief biography in both English and Spanish.
“We hope this can be an exhibition for people of all ages,” said Karuna Srikureja, assistant interpreter at the DAM’s Asian Art Department. “Maybe we can light it [interest] in young girls. They can become big fans of Japanese artists and grow up with these characters in mind.”
Another interactive element of the exhibition is a large projection screen on the last wall, inviting visitors to create their own ephemeral calligraphy.
“We’re trying to convey the brush as an extension of the body,” Cervone said. “We want to help visitors embody and physically experience the idea of making an impact through art.”
Through this, Cervone hopes visitors can connect with the power of the brush as a force for self-expression and agency – just as these Japanese women did centuries ago.
“This is one way to enroll in our presence,” Cervone said. “It is a remarkable act of courage to be seated as a woman. This notion of leaving a brushstroke is a way of deciding that your artistic voice is important enough to be heard.”
Her Brush: Japanese Women Artists the Fong-Johnstone Collection is on view at the Bonfils-Stanton Gallery on Level 1 of the Martin Building at the Denver Art Museum from November 13 to May 13, 2023. The exhibition is included in general admission.
Contact Izzy Fincher, CU’s Independent Editor-in-Chief, at [email protected]