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Denver — July 26, 2022 — The Denver Art Museum (DAM) presents Her Brush: Japanese Women Artists from the Fong-Johnstone Collection. 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. Opening at the DAM Nov. 13, 2022, through May 13, 2023, in the Martin Building’s level 1 Bonfils-Stanton Gallery, Her Brush is included with general admission. 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 (1643–1682), Otagaki Rengetsu (1791–1875), and Okuhara Seiko (1837–1913) as well as relatively unknown yet equally remarkable artists like Oishi Junkyo (1888–1968), Yamamoto Shoto (1757–1831) and Kato Seiko (fl. 1800s).
“This stunning exhibition brings forward the ideas of autonomy, legacy and a person’s ownership of their individual story,” said Christoph Heinrich, Frederick and Jan Mayer Director of the DAM. “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,” said Cervone, who joined the DAM September 2021. “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 artist. 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 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 (?oku ??)
“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 ???? (1840–1871), Oda Shitsushitsu ???? (1779–1832) and Ono no oz? ???? (1559/68–before 1650).
Daughters of The Ateliers (onna eshi ???)
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 ???? (1829–1912) and Hirata Gyokuon ???? (1787–1855).
Taking the Tonsure (shukke ??)
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 ???? (1753–1826), ?tagaki Rengetsu, Daits? Bunchi ???? (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 (sanj? ??)” 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 ??)
“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 Tay?, 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 ??)
The sixth section, “Literati Circles (bunjin ??),” 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 ???) 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 Sh?hin ???? (1847–1917), Ema Saik? ????(1787–1861) and Tokuyama (Ike) Gyokuran ??(?)?? (1727–1784), the latter being one of the Three Women of Gion.
The safety of visitors and staff remains a top priority, and the museum is continually updating its COVID-19 safety and security protocols based on advice from the CDC and federal and local guidelines. Current protocols can be found in the “Visit” section of the museum’s website: https://www.denverartmuseum.
About the Denver Art Museum
The Denver Art Museum is an educational, nonprofit resource that sparks creative thinking and expression through transformative experiences with art. Its mission is to enrich lives by sparking creative thinking and expression. Its holdings reflect the city and region—and provide invaluable ways for the community to learn about cultures from around the world. Metro residents support the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District (SCFD), a unique funding source serving hundreds of metro Denver arts, culture and scientific organizations. For museum information, visit www.denverartmuseum.org or call 720-865-5000.
Online Newsroom: www.denverartmuseum.org/press
Andy Sinclair/Press Office
Denver Art Museum