Every couple of months, our Asian art department ­puts up a new rotation of Japanese woodblock prints in the Robert F. Lange Foundation Gallery. Now on view through Nov. 16 (just one week left!) is The Literary World of the Women of the Yoshiwara, which focuses on the intellectual lives of women in the Yoshiwara—the government-sanctioned brothel district on the outskirts of Edo city (modern-day Tokyo) that opened in March 1617 and was closed down as a prostitution venue in 1958.

The works in the exhibition are portraits of women, and include poems—and it may surprise you to learn who wrote them.

“I was interested in doing this rotation about the series A Compendium of the New Beauties of the Yoshiwara, Mirrored in their Writing by Kitao Masanobu because from what we’ve been told, the inscriptions on the prints are the handwriting of the women depicted in the pictures and the poems were composed ­by the women,” says Stephen Salel, Robert F. Lange Foundation Assistant curator of Japanese art. “Usually when we see pictures of courtesans, we think of them as models or subjects, but not as artists, poets or literary scholars. This series shows them in that light. These women were highly educated and this series of prints shows what they knew. Artists collaborated with them. I’m assuming Masanobu asked them to compose poems—sometimes they chose poems from classical Japanese or Chinese literature. Perhaps they each wrote a poem on a piece of paper, probably with brush and ink, and then possibly that was given to the team of woodblock print artist, publisher and carver, and they transferred the writing onto the woodblocks.”

To the untrained eye, these may look like many other woodblock prints, but, “This was a very unusual and very special series of works,” says Salel, who researched the theme and found that there are some precedents. “Around 1768, Suzuki Harunobu produced a series of prints that depicted women from the Yoshiwara. Beside each portrait he wrote the woman’s name. Eight years later two artists created a similar series of portraits of women in the Yoshiwara based on Harunobu’s series. They wrote the names of each woman next to her portrait and included samples of each woman’s poetry. And eight years after that a third series was made—the series by Masanobu. He shows the woman, writes her name next to her portrait, and includes her poetry in her handwriting. After Masanobu’s series the trend dies off, and when you get to late 19th and early 20th century, the literary aspects of Yoshiwara fade away and it becomes like a typical brothel district.”

For the exhibition, Salel translated the poems in the prints, so that we can all experience the courtesans’ literary talent. Here is what he wrote about the print pictured above:

“Not only were the residents of the Yoshiwara brothel district extremely literate and well trained in classical Japanese prose and poetry, they were known to create works of art themselves and to assist accomplished artists in their publications. Inspired by a series of books by Kitao Shigemasa (1739-1820) and Katsukawa Shunshō (1726-1792) displayed elsewhere in this gallery, the printmaker Kitao Masanobu (known also as the novelist Santō Kyōden) produced this strikingly intimate study of the Yoshiwara brothel district, in which he includes not only portraits of the courtesans but also poems composed and inscribed by them.

In the center of this print, the courtesan Utagawa sits reading a letter, her waka (31-syllable poem) appears on her upper right:

Strewn
On the banks of the Yoshino stream
Cherry blossoms
When the gust comes
Scatter like butterflies.

(Miyoshino no
Kawabe ni sakeru
Sakurabana
Chiri ukabu wo ya
niguru chō ramu.)

To the left of Utagawa, the courtesan Nanasato stands with a poem card (tanzaku) in one hand and a writing brush in the other. Above her, Nanasato’s haiku (17-syllable poem) reads:

When the rain falls upon it
Ah, the perfume
Of the unyielding plum flower.

(Ame obi te
ugokanu ume no
nioi ka na.)”

Santō Kyōden / Kitao Masanobu
(1761–1816)
The Courtesans Utagawa and Nanasato of the Yotsumeya Brothel in the Yoshiwara, Accompanied by their Attendants
From the series A Compendium of the New Beauties of the Yoshiwara, Mirrored in their Writing
Japan, Edo period (1615–1868), 1784
Woodblock print; ink and color on paper
Gift of James A. Michener, 1991 (21710)