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Geisha -- Beyond the Painted Smile

Adding Context to Myth

With her prominent white face makeup and elegantly flowing kimonos, the geisha is one of the most compelling and misconstrued icons in Japanese culture. The subject of the Asian Art Museum's current exhibit, Geisha-Beyond the Painted Smile, casts a decorous shadow on her own mythologized images; while there's an clear cultural context that attempts to dispel prevalent stereotypes about the geisha, the ritualized Úlan of her world retains its esoteric charm.

Since the roots of geisha culture were laid down in 18th century teahouses, the geisha has existed in a liminal space between reputability and moral decadence. She's the eastern corollary to Degas's early paintings of bathing women, who invited the wrath of the Parisian middle class precisely because the women inhered in an uncomfortable formlessness that escaped definition. Were they prostitutes, peasants, or aristocrats? No one could tell. Like Degas's works, the fluidity of the geisha's identity can be both puzzling and frustrating to the western eye.

The exhibit features 130 works, including paintings, hanging scrolls, woodblock prints, garments, musical instruments, ceramics, photos, and video installations. The items are arranged in chronological order, from the 1700s to contemporary Japan, and offer explorations of the aesthetic appeal and inevitable misreadings of geisha culture.

In the west, the geisha's role as an entertainer is often upended to make her function seem entirely prurient. In fact, since the Edo period (1615-1868), the geisha has traditionally undergone severe formal training in singing, dancing, and music. With the rise of Japanese mercantilism, cities began to invest in "pleasure quarters", where geishas and courtesans tendered their services and provided legal forms of entertainment. By 1780, the geisha profession- which was traditionally male- was dominated by women.

The exhibit is particularly focused on identification and how one can tell whether or not a woman is a geisha. Several assembled works are invested in the geisha image, and every aspect of her ornamentation is symbolic of her status, from her traditional silk kimono to the manner in which herobi, or sash, is tied to her high wooden clogs and snow-white socks. Aside from her artistic prowess and erudition, the geisha exemplifies iki, or chic- the syncretic union of simplicity, grace, and visual display.

A highlight of the items is a selection of kimonos from the most famous geisha of the 20th century, Ichimaru, who gave up geisha-hood to pursue a career as a recording star. The elegant gowns are embossed with everything from peacock feathers to silver-leaf stenciling and contain a voluminous array of landscapes, gauze weaves, and abstracted designs on silk crepe.

The work is split between the new media of the West- which, in its aping of Japanese culture, constructs a romantic and salacious depiction of the geisha- and the more intricate elucidations of geisha rituals (grooming, playing instruments, entertaining clients) by Japanese artists. Utagawa Toyokuni's Twenty-four Scenes of Women (1816), is a perfect example of the symbolic nature of the geisha's social standing. With ink and colors on silk, mounted on board, Toyokuni has given us exquisite, suggestive renditions of geisha life that are so straightforward as to appear banal. Including pictures of women grooming their difficult coiffures, applying makeup, learning to play stringed instruments, and writing letters, the various scenes are testaments to the trained gentility and studied embellishment of the geisha.

Much of the exhibit is also devoted to the demystification of the formulaic geisha. Yoko Yamamoto, who has been photographing geishas for 20 years, offers a shadowy, intimate, yet starkly revealing account of the tradition to viewers. Her portrait of the Shinbashi geisha Marichiyo, perhaps the most highly admired geisha dancer of the 20th century, is an astonishing depiction of a woman at the end of her career, at the age of 86. Yamamoto foregoes traditional representations of the geisha's desirability and youth in favor of a half-celebratory, half-mournful display of Marichiyo's regal poise and individuality.

The regimentation of sexual relations is often alluded to in the exhibit, but oftentimes, the service of the geisha is confused with the cult of the courtesan (a high-class prostitute who was actually far above the geisha in the Yoshiwara pleasure quarters hierarchy), leading to further bewilderment about specific roles. Despite the attempt to take the geisha out of the realm of romanticized myth, the attempts by artists to "present life as it is" collide with an aspect of Japanese culture that is heavily ritualized- in art, retrospection, and practice.

The assembled works can be read as critiques through the lenses of feminism, modernism, capitalism, and nationalism, or simply as evidence of the unremitting allure of an arcane institution. But behind the painted smile, feminine charm, with its concomitant artifice and ambiguity, leads to more questions than the art deigns to provide, leaving the geisha, in her various incarnations, cloaked in the legends that have made her who she is.

Geisha: Beyond the Painted Smile
is on display through September 26.
at Asian Art Museum
200 Larkin Street
Phone: (415) 581-3500
Hours: Tuesday-Saturday 10am-5pm
(extended hours till 9pm on Thursdays)