Utamaro – A Girl And Her Reflection

This print represents one of the more decorative types of Japanese pictorial art. It is, first of all, an intricate linear arabesque of flowing, interlacing curves and loops. Some of these lines serve to mark off areas differing in light-anddark value. Each area has some definite, uniform degree of lightness; there are no soft gradual transitions from one to another. Step by step, they form a series of shades, from the jet blackness of the hair, mirror-frame and table, to the paper-whiteness of the faces. They are placed, not to represent the natural falling of highlights and shadows, but to form a pattern, in which each particular shade is a theme to be repeated in various shapes and sizes. The areas are contrasted also in color and texture: besides black and white, some are plain yellow or green, some flowered red or violet. Aside from their contribution to the pattern of contrasts, the colors have little surface charm. Being merely diluted washes of uniform thinness on paper, they lack the richness, intensity and subtlety of other media. Japanese prints, like other exotic, non-realistic forms, have exerted a refreshing influence on modern European art, helping to free it from its own conventions. But in comparison with the great Chinese and Japanese painting from which they are descended, they represent a decline in creative vigor. The quality of line in this picture, for example, is rather monotonous, hard and insensitive, and the pattern it weaves is tightly crystallized, academically formal, rather than free and spontaneous.