The Aesthetics of
"Portrait of a Courtesan" (1872)
by Takahashi Yuichi

The Aesthetics of 'Bijin'

USC scholar discusses a Japanese notion of beauty and its artistic representation in Meiji period paintings.

The term bijin underscores a crisis between language and visuality in addition to the issue of the fundamental ambiguity the term manifests – as a term that in the end cannot be defined.

By Vincent Lim, Staff Writer

The Japanese art critic who has called Takahashi Yuichi's famous oil painting Portrait of a Courtesan (1872) "exotic and grotesque" is not alone in his judgment.

The painting has elicited much discussion in recent studies of art of the Meiji period (1868–1912). Yuichi used European techniques and the medium of oil painting to depict the figure of the beautiful woman, which, until that time, was typically represented in woodblock prints in the indigenous Nihonga style. Critics have been perplexed by the way in which Yuichi depicted the courtesan. They say that the bijin, or “beautiful woman,” in his hybridized painting does not appear beautiful according to the standards of traditional Japanese aesthetics. Instead, she seems lifeless and dreary, nothing like the bijin represented in other Japanese works of art.

“Not only is [the courtesan] not a 'true' beauty—she is not a bijin,” said Miya Mizuta Lippit at a Nov. 6, 2006 lecture at UCLA sponsored by the Paul I. and Hisako Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies. In the talk, "Imperial Beauty: Photographic Truth and the New Spirit of Modern Japanese Aesthetics," Lippit, a lecturer at the University of Southern California who earned her PhD from Yale, discussed the ambiguity of the Japanese term for beautiful woman and its representation in Meiji artwork.

Lippit argued that the term bijin, which existed long before the Meiji period, changed as a result of discussions among Japanese artists. In the Edo period (1603–1867), bijin could describe a beautiful man or woman. During the Meiji period, the definition of the word narrowed to refer exclusively to a beautiful woman. The change in meaning coincided with the development of modern Japanese aesthetics.

"The bijin came to characterize modern Japanese aesthetics itself," said Lippit. "In the latter half of the Meiji, from the 1890's onward, the figure of the bijin appeared with unprecedented frequency as a graphic representation…in paintings, sculptures, illustrations, posters, postcards, and photographs."

Understanding Bijin

Lippit said there is a paradox inherent in the term bijin itself. According to Lippit, anyone who sees the figure of a beautiful woman represented in art feels that they can immediately understand beauty and therefore the meaning of the term bijin. Yet the concept of the bijin cannot be so easily described. For example, she claims that it would be a struggle to see how the courtesan in Yuichi's painting could be a representation of the word.

“That is part of the problem in working through this notion of bijin,” said Lippit. “In the end, there is never a sense that it can be represented artistically.”

Nor could it be fully articulated in words.

Bijin [exist] in language, but [are] at the same time inaccessible through language," Lippit said. "The term bijin underscores a crisis between language and visuality in addition to the issue of the fundamental ambiguity the term manifests—as a term that in the end cannot be defined," Lippit said.

Portrait of a Courtesan was created in the early Meiji period, when the European-influenced style known as yôga had yet to be popularized and new ways of depicting women were just beginning to be explored.

Yôga style painting was considered naturalistic—presenting people, places and objects as they appeared to the eye. By contrast, Nihonga style painting was abstract and sought to reproduce the spirit of the natural world, or how people, places and objects ought to look. The figure of the bijin is associated with Nihonga painting.

Lippit also spoke briefly about the criticism of Japanese aesthetics by Western critics during the Meiji period. Westerners concluded that Japanese artists were oblivious to the notion of beauty because of the way they depicted the women in their artwork, she said.

“Japanese art, while lauded in many regards for its lacquers, ceramics and such, did not, or so it appeared, represent women according to the aesthetics standards of the Western tradition,” she said.

Citing comments by Sir Rutherford Alcock, the first British diplomatic representative in Japan, Lippit said that Westerners viewed Japanese women as ugly because they were "deformed by Japanese aesthetics."

"To Westerners, Japanese women were, as it would seem, charming or thought of as artwork," said Lippit. "But not 'true' beauties."

Lippit's talk was the first colloquium of the 2006-2007 academic year sponsored by the Terasaki Center. Two more colloquia are scheduled before the end of the year.