DENVER — “We support women artists,” said Christoph Heinrich, director of the Denver Art Museum, to a room of donors, art historians, and administrators on the opening night of Her Brush, an exhibition of Japanese women artists primarily from the Edo (1600–1868) and Meiji (1868–1912) periods. The museum director listed three shows in seven years as evidence of equity: Women of Abstract Expressionism (2016), Her Paris (a 2018 traveling exhibition organized by the American Federation of Arts and independent curator Laurence Madeline), and now Her Brush. But Her Brush is more than an inclusivity initiative. It is kin with the growing number of women-only presentations because it reveals a fact hiding in plain sight: great women artists existed everywhere at all times.
The artists in Her Brush did not use pseudonyms, were employed by the imperial family, maintained generational ateliers, and sold work. Yet most of the names in the exhibition would garner a “who?” from Japanese art historians. It’s been 35 years since the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas exhibited the groundbreaking show Japanese Women Artists 1600–1900 and 20 years since the important book Gender and Power in the Japanese Visual Field was published, and still women artists compose a fraction of the historic record.
The political and socio-historic context of pre-modern Japanese women was unique. During the Edo period, the Tokugawa family instituted a feudal system with Confucian-informed class structures. Samurai were at the top of the social ladder as protectors of powerful landowners. Below the warrior class were farmers and then craftsmen, with merchants on the bottom. Some people existed above the social system, like the imperial family and Buddhist clergy, and others were below it, like courtesans. Confucius and Buddhist teachings positioned women as subservient to men, which limited their mobility and education. Women who learned poetry, painting, and calligraphy required the support of a man, such as a father or family friend, for training, therefore, male teachers are named throughout Her Brush.
The exhibition is organized to reflect the social silos of women: inner chambers (women of wealth), ateliers, Buddhist nuns, the Floating World and literati (a social gathering of artists). Some artists, such as Ōtagaki Rengetsu, appear in multiple places in the exhibition to express her expansive network among poets. As a Buddhist nun, her status enabled her to travel unaccompanied and those movements are documented in the sketches of a travel journal and an extraordinary painting, “Moon, Blossoming Cherry and Poem” (1867), inscribed with her famous verse:
The inn refuses me, But their slight is a kindness. I make my bed instead Below the cherry blossoms With the hazy moon above.
Despite a range of expressions and materials in Her Brush, the artworks do not differ stylistically from those by the men of their time. Dr. Patricia Fister states in the book Flowering in the Shadows (1990) that if artists studied with the Kano school style, they followed that tradition and if they studied Chinese literati style, that manner would dictate. If gender cannot be located in the paintings, why the curatorial approach and title of Her?
Noguchi Shōhin was born in Osaka in 1847. She trained in poetry and painting at a young age, studying with painter Hine Taizan. She became a painting professor at a women’s university, exhibited at the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris and the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, served as official artist of the imperial family, and was covered extensively in the Japanese press, but she is missing from Japanese art books today.
Some reasons why we don’t know these artists have to do with their context and others have to do with ours. Fister notes that the biographies of women artists often highlighted their modesty to avoid scorn for being self-indulgent as artists: “As a result of this downplaying of accomplishments, modern readers have been offered little insight on how women fit into the history of Japanese art.” For example, Ryōnen Gensō was rejected for training by a famous Ōbaku Zen monk due to her beauty. As a nun at the imperial Buddhist convent Hōkyōji, her head was already shaved and her dress humble. She burned her face with a hot iron to diminish her appearance and be accepted. A single poem by Gensō is displayed in the exhibition next to a print by male artist Utagawa Kunisad recreating the dramatic moment of her self-mutilation.
The gender debate within Japan reveals answers less generous than Fister’s. In 1997, art historian Chino Kaori presented “The Significance of Gender Studies in Japanese Art History Discourse” at a symposium in Tokyo that would be the basis for an anthology titled Women? Japan? Beauty? Chino acknowledged that the objects and themes discussed in Japanese art history were selected according to the values of the authors — heterosexual men. She presented a new interrogation of objects with an awareness of gender. Art historian Shigemi Inaga criticized Chino in the journal Aida (1998), arguing that a feminist perspective mistakes “minority” makers as “universal.” He defined universal as a discourse that reflects the male domination at the moment of creation. Essentially, Inaga suggested women artists existed outside of the mainstream and thus were correctly marginalized by historical research.
Shigemi’s position has been replaced by more convincing arguments that challenge the effectiveness of women-only shows. A 2021 Hyperallergic article illustrates how such shows make female art history a subcategory and leave the male-dominated narratives unchallenged. A recent Art Review article states that all-women exhibitions have been executed for decades with little to no impact on museum acquisitions or our collective memory. If all-male shows have presented an incomplete perspective on history, Eliza Goodpasture writes, women-only shows do the same.
Foregrounding women requires a negotiation with men. Men are everywhere in Her Brush — named as teachers, abusers, and patrons. Their persistent presence threatens to take credit for the work. In a show with Japanese names that are not obviously female to a mostly English-reading audience, what would be the assumption about the creators if gender was not headlined? There is ample research about the biases of viewers in science museums or how additional texts around American monuments do not mitigate existing attitudes. Do women-only shows help combat the assumption that important work is male just as exhibitions organized around race and ethnicity combat Whiteness?
The traditional framework of what is worthy of study, critique, or preservation, and who holds the authority to declare it, persists in our institutions and problematizes alternative curatorial approaches. “We support women artists” sounds good but feels empty when we know that art by women accounts for only 11% of museum acquisitions and those efforts peaked in 2009, according to a report by Charlotte Burns and Julia Halperin.
Museums are tied to patrons as the driving force of acquisitions. The Burns Halperin report found that 60% of objects in its study entered museum collections by gift or bequest. Her Brush was achieved through a gift of 500 objects by collectors Dr. John Fong and Dr. Colin Johnstone. The donation was secured under the museum’s previous Asian art curator, Tianlong Jiao, now head curator of the Hong Kong Palace Museum. The museum told Hyperallergic that it delayed the original opening in 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. An exhibition catalogue titled Tradition and Triumph, was published in 2021, but was not distributed. Hyperallergic obtained a copy of that original catalogue and a comparison with the current checklist shows that many objects were pulled from the exhibition. According to sources in the museum, the show was delayed, the book scrapped, and checklist revised due to issues of authentication. Now several artists are represented by significantly fewer works: Kiyohara Yukinobu went from five to two paintings, and nearly 20 pieces credited to Ōtagaki Rengetsu were cut. Although this highlights the problems of museum scholarship tethered to donor demands and resources, it also confronts any looming skepticism about the importance of these women. Why make fakes of an irrelevant artist?
Criticizing collectors for acquiring the same art as the previous generation and condemning museums for not evolving is all satisfying and fair — but neither narrative is complete. In the book Painting Outside the Lines, economist Dr. David Galenson presents a statistical correlation between the art exhibited in retrospectives and illustrated in textbooks and auction prices, proving intellectual and economic markets are in dialogue. Art historical research (and its funding) must exercise historiographic methods to attack problematic claims and question omissions for a shift in collections to be observed. Dr. Peggy Wang discusses in her book The Future History of Contemporary Chinese Art how simplistic Western interpretations of Chinese artists in the 1980s and 1990s repeated inaccurate narratives with such frequency that they became fact in commercial and academic forums. Since art historians can manipulate or rectify economic and social history, the discipline must revisit its own output.
Naomi Beckwith, deputy director and chief curator of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, recently wrote that there is more than one solution to the issue of representation in collections. All possibilities should be explored because museums move slowly, she says, like a mountain carried away one grain at time. While we monitor the summit, may her brush create the next horizon.
Her Brush: Japanese Women Artists from the Fong-Johnstone Collection continues at the Denver Art Museum (100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, Denver, Colorado) through July 16. The exhibition was conceived by Professor Andrew L. Maske and co-curated by Dr. Einor K. Cervone, associate curator of Asian Art at the Denver Art Museum.