Published: February 3, 2004
Distinguished by their striking white makeup, elaborate hairstyles and exquisite examples of traditional kimono, geisha have been a powerfully evocative icon of Japan and a source of fascination for people around the world since the late Nineteenth Century. Yet their role as entertainers and artists has been largely mis-perceived through the lens of western culture.
The Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) will offer an intimate look at the exclusive world of geisha culture while addressing cultural perceptions of this uniquely Japanese tradition in “Geisha: Beyond the Painted Smile,” February 14-May 9, 2004.
Featuring some 150 breathtaking works – including paintings, hanging scrolls, woodblock prints, garments, musical instruments, ceramics, contemporary photographs and video installations – the exhibition takes us on a journey from the early roots of geisha culture to the present-day teahouses where geisha perform.
Many of the works on view are part of PEM’s outstanding Japanese collection, which is one of the world’s largest collections of Japanese art and cultural objects outside of Japan. Organized by Andrew Maske, PEM curator of Japanese art, “Geisha: Beyond the Painted Smile” is accompanied by a major publication. Related public programs, including a panel discussion, lectures, gallery talks, films and a music performance, will be held in conjunction with the exhibition from February through May.
“Geisha: Beyond the Painted Smile” will travel to the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco from June 25 through September 26, 2004.
“Geisha: Beyond the Painted Smile” commences with imagery of the “exotic geisha” – works that convey the various perceptions of geisha as seen through the eyes of both westerners and Japanese people. In the Nineteenth Century, images of geisha were presented by European, American and Japanese artists in fine art through new media, including woodblock prints, decorated porcelains and hand tinted photographs. In reality, not all of these works depict geisha authentically, yet for those who only knew Japan through travelogs and art, they sparked the imagination as to what geisha entertainment was.
Unfamiliarity with Japan’s customs and traditions invariably led to confusion about the geisha profession, and many conflated all Japanese women to be geisha, or more pointedly, confused geisha with prostitutes or courtesans. While some westerners may have understood geisha’s role as an entertainer, they were more specifically thought of as entertainers of men, and therefore deemed wanton and risqué.
In the first section, the exhibition features depictions of “exotically” dressed and coiffed Japanese women in photographs, ceramics, paintings and even movie ephemera from the 1960s – works that connote perceptions of geisha. “Maiko,” 1893, for example, is an oil painting by Kuroda Seiki, who is largely considered one of the most important western-style Japanese painters of the late Nineteenth Century. The work, created after a sojourn in France, provides a new perspective on the traditional culture of the artist’s homeland, and is one of only three oil paintings designated as an Important Cultural Property by Japan’s government.
Other works include ceramics with images of geisha created in Japan in the 1950s for the European and American markets, and photographs of courtesans that have been confused for geisha. Dated notions of Japanese culture from as late as the 1960s are also on display, including authentic lobby cards for The Barbarian and The Geisha, a film about an American diplomat in Japan (played by John Wayne) and a geisha who becomes his love interest; and a poster for My Geisha, which casts Shirley MacLaine as an actress who masquerades as a geisha to land a part in a film.
“Women of Kyoto” by Mihata Joryu (circa 1830-1850), a pair of screens that provides a turning point for this season, shows a variety of Kyoto women, among them geisha and maiko (apprentice geisha). The work points out the difference between geisha and other women, and paves the way for an exploration of the realities of the geisha profession.
The second section of the exhibition offers an up-close look at the gei or artistic accom-plishments of geisha since the Eighteenth Century through objects, prints, paintings, photographs and video. Geisha are artists who dedicate them-selves to the highest standards of performance in traditional singing, dancing and instrumental music, and undergo years of rigorous formal training before making their debuts. They typically perform in small, intimate settings, providing entertainment that goes beyond the mere stage show to encompass exquisite performance, masterful conversation and game playing.
Geisha emerged as artists and entertainers during Japans Edo period (1603-1868), which saw the development of cities and the rise of a wealthy merchant class that channeled its wealth into luxuries of city life that included theater, restaurants, clothing and the “pleasure quarters.” These quarters offered freedoms not found in the outside world – romance, elegance and spontaneity, and a place where money, charm and wit prevailed. This retreat into fantasy offered access to brothels, but men also went there to eat, drink, listen to music, write poetry, enjoy entertainment and socialize. Here, geisha worked alongside prostitutes and courtesans – all legal forms of entertainment that were subject to regulation by the government.
In the 1600s, the first geisha were men who provided music, comic relief and all-around good company at parties. Women entered the arena in the mid-1700s, and by 1780, female geisha outnumbered males in this profession.
Today geisha are women who through their lives continue to advance their artistic proficiency. After making their debuts, geisha continue to spend many of their daytime hours practicing musical instruments, dancing or singing. Appearances in annual or semi-annual stage shows and other events required still further rehearsal. Numerous prints and paintings in the exhibition show geisha performing in teahouses and onstage for larger audiences by invitation. In addition, the exhibition features musical instruments used by geisha, including drums, flutes and especially the three-stringed shamisen.
The venues in which geisha typically perform – teahouses (o-chaya) or the traditional restaurant (ryotei) – have changed little over the past 100 years. Such locales follow a rule of “no first-time customers” that, combined with the high cost of geisha entertainment, make the world of geisha inaccessible and prohibitive. At the small gatherings held at these venues, geisha provide their clients with an atmospheric evening of banter and fun, pairing their talents in traditional dance and music with conversation, flirtation and drinking games. The exhibition offers a contemporary glimpse at what an entertainment entails with a video, commissioned by PEM, that follows a man as he takes his friend for an evening of geisha entertainment in the Gion district of Kyoto.
The alluring aesthetic sense of iki – akin to the French world chic – is maintained through a geisha’s dress and manners, in addition to her artistic pursuits. Small hand gestures in dance or the elegant manner of pouring sake are as important to a geisha as the selection of a kimono to suit the occasion.
Geisha and maiko wear traditional silk kimono, geta (high wooden clogs), and white tabi (socks), and adorn their sculpted wigs with stunning accessories. They wear only the highest quality kimonos, play the finest musical instruments, and travel first class wherever they go – a matter of professional status rather than personal luxury. On view in the exhibition are exquisite garments worn by geisha, including splendid silk kimonos, obi sashes, hair adornments, as well as woodblock prints, photographs and a video that shows the intricate process of makeup application, hair preparation and dressing.
The last section of the exhibition takes a behind the scenes look at geisha in the contemporary setting. A poetic series of photographs by Yoko Yamamoto, an artist who spent nearly 20 years photographing in the main geisha districts of Tokyo, captures seldom seen aspects of the culture, while a video installation features a contemporary geisha talking about her life. This section aims to leave a lasting impression of new iconic imagery of the contemporary geisha.
The Peabody Essex Museum (PEM), houses renowned collections of art from China, Japan, Korea, Africa, Oceania and India, as well as American decorative art, Native American art, maritime art and photography. These exceptional collections are set amidst one of the nation’s premier ensembles of early American architecture, including 25 historic properties.
The museum, located at East India Square, is open daily, 10 am to 5 pm; Thursdays until 9 pm. For information, 866-745-1876, or www.pem.org.
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