Beauty and Skeleton Kuchi-e Print

   Beauty and Skeleton Kuchi-e Woodblock Print (detail)
  Beauty and Skeleton Kuchi-e (detail)

The word rolls off the tongue smoothly, even though the language is Japanese. Kuchi (koo-chi), means mouth; e, the letter e, means picture. Taken together they mean “mouth picture,” which translates as frontispiece, and as a category of Japanese art they refer to the frontispieces of romantic Japanese novels produced between 1890 and 1912. These stories almost always dealt with the plight and ordeals of heroic Japanese women, and Kuchi-e showed them in ways that referenced the story while capturing the cultural ideals of the period. This was a time of change, and Kuchi-e were meant to keep viewers and readers focused on time honored values and customs. Two such values are worth remembering - giri, duty, and ninjo, human emotion.

Kunimatsu Utagawa Kuchi-e   
Kunimatsu Utagawa Kuchi-e

Featured is a beautifully preserved Kuchi-e Woodblock Print called “Beauty and Skeleton.” It is dated 1895 and bears the seal of the artist, Kunimatsu Utagawa. We do not know the name of the story it depicted, but that hardly matters. What does matter is what the picture says about the story. Our heroine sits quietly contemplating a skeleton, perhaps someone from her past, caught in the conflict between giri and ninjo, between what she feels she should do versus what she wants to do. The conflict between duty and desire is not limited to old Japan. It exists everywhere, in all places, in all societies, throughout time. It is the stuff of Japanese romantic novels and Hollywood movies, and this week’s new arrival, which reminds us that beautiful art can also be meaningful.

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