Gorgeous Prints Immortalize The Naked, Pearl-Diving ‘Mermaids’ Of Japan

”Mirror of Desire” can be interpreted as a survey of the Japanese artists who worked in woodblock prints, producing a wide array of iconic images, including great waves and cherry blossoms and even a few cats. However, the Parisian show has a more narrow focus. The exhibition is dedicated to the ways in which famous figures like Hokusai and Utamaro represented women in particular, taking viewers on a tour of Edo Period art and the female characters that inhabit it.

From ama to geisha to courtesans, the prints on view demonstrate the tendency of ukiyo-e ― the Japanese style of art popular in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries ― to focus on women at home, at work and at play. Mostly male artists depicted the female subjects picnicking, powdering their bodies, fixing their hair, engaging in sex on a boat, and diving for pearls in the middle of the ocean.

The artworks, sometimes referred to as bijin-ga or “images of beauties,” are almost always filtered through the eyes of a man. Yet the Musée Guimet’s prints, filled with mundane expressions and banal activities, focus just as often on the interactions between women, or the subtle moments of introspection, as the sexualized shunga scenes prevalent at the time. The artworks give us a tantalizing peek into lives lived hundreds of years ago, even if it’s just to see a woman strategically using two mirrors to spy that unreachable wisp of hair on the back of her head.

The scenes, beautifully familiar, prove just how modest and illuminating a handmade image from 1795 can be. Check out a preview of the exhibition below.

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