Kitagawa Utamaro, Lovers in an upstairs room, from Uta makura ('Poem of the Pillow'), a colour woodblock print
Edo period, AD 1788
A masterpiece of erotic art
The album 'Poem of the Pillow' is a masterpiece among the erotic works by Utamaro (died 1806), and indeed, among the entire erotica of the Ukiyo-e school.
Utamaro has avoided the stereotypical scenes of love-making that were often produced at the time, and instead created an innovative and powerfully sensual design. He uses a very low viewpoint and places the unusually large figures so that they seem to expand beyond the frame of the picture. The eye is shocked by the white of the woman's skin against the bright scarlet under-kimono, and the transparency of the gauze fabric that covers the couple's entwined legs only heightens the sensuousness. Finally, however, the viewer focuses on the heads and shoulders. The details emphasise the emotion of the moment: the man's eye as he gazes intently at his lover, the tender touch of their delicate fingers and the exquisite nape of the woman's neck. Written on the fan is a suggestive verse by the comic poet Yadoya no Meshimori:
Hashi o shikka to
Aki no yūgure
beak caught firmly
In the clam shell,
The snipe cannot
Of an autumn evening
The 'Poem of the Pillow' is the first of a series of de luxe printed books produced by Utamaro in partnership with the publisher Tsutaya Jūsaburō. The variety of themes - birds, shells, snow, moon and flowers - widened the range of subject-matter and styles in Ukiyo-e of the time.
L. Smith, V. Harris and T. Clark, Japanese art: masterpieces in (London, The British Museum Press, 1990)
J. Hillier, The art of the Japanese book, (London, Philip Wilson Publishers, 1987)
S. Asano and T. Clark, The passionate art of Kitagawa (London, 1995)