In our last installment of the ongoing saga of Prof. Chung Woo Thak, his research group, and the Richard Lane Collection, we announced that A Scholarly Gathering—a national treasure-level Korean painting discovered in the Lane collection—had returned from Korea after being restored and remounted. The collection has once again yielded an exciting find—on Feb. 22, Prof. Tsunenori Fukushima of Hanazono University, and a member of Prof. Chung’s research group, discovered an example of calligraphy—in the form of a poem—by Hanaōgi, one of the most famous courtesans in Japanese history.
Employed in the Ōgiya Brothel in the Yoshiwara brothel district during the 1780s, Hanaōgi was one of the most frequently depicted women in ukiyo-e. “[She] appears in nine prints in the museum’s collection,” says Robert F. Lange Foundation Assistant Curator of Japanese Art Stephen Salel, “three of which are reproductions, which in itself says volumes about how famous her portraits were.”
High-ranking courtesans of the Edo period were well educated, and often wrote poems, painted, and drew calligraphy, so one might imagine there would be plenty of examples of Hanaōgi’s work. However, as famous Hanaōgi was, examples of her calligraphy are extremely rare As translated by Salel, the poem reads “扇飛雲拂軽霄 | Hiun wo aogi, keishō wo harau | I face the sky and cool myself with a fan.”
Salel explains that “Since the courtesan’s name is Hanaōgi—which literally translates as ‘flower fan’— this poem has a strong reference to herself.”
The work is mounted on a triptych of hanging scrolls, which also includes two works by another courtesan named Takigawa, who was employed at the Ōgiya Brothel at the same time. Incidentally, Takigawa appears as the second figure from the right in the print above with Hanaōgi.
Three weeks after the discovery was made is was brought to Prof. Mitsutoshi Nakano—an authority on the history of the Yoshiwara who was at the museum for his own research project on Edo period woodblock printed books—who verified the work’s authenticity.
While there are no immediate plans for the work, Salel looks forward to being able to use it in the future, “For several years, I’ve been interested in doing an exhibition or gallery rotation that discusses courtesans of the Yoshiwara in a sort of biographical way,” he says. “Hanaōgi would certainly be included in such a project, and this hanging scroll would be perfect to display in such a context.”