Scholten Japanese Art presents

MIRROR MIRROR: Reflecting Beauty in Japanese Prints and Paintings

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New York Asia Week, March 15 – 24, 2018, 11 am – 5 pm

Scholten Japanese Art is pleased to announce our upcoming gallery presentation, MIRROR MIRROR: Reflecting Beauty in Japanese Prints and Paintings, an exhibition exploring representations of the mirror, both as a theme itself and as a visual metaphor for viewing other subjects in floating world imagery. Mirrors appear in compositions as accessories or key props in a story being told. Mirrors can function as ingenious framing devices or as windows into private space, and they provide seemingly endless opportunities for the artist to present an alternate view within a design.

The use of kagami, round bronze mirrors, dates back nearly two thousand years in Japan to the Yayoi period (300 B.C. to 250 A.D.). Early mirrors were intimate, usually approximately 4 inches in diameter, with a smooth side of gilded tin which was highly polished to achieve a reflective quality. Precious for their material and their function, mirrors were used for Shinto rituals as well as personal use. In order to slow inevitable oxidation and avert marring the finish it was necessary to avoid touching the surface with bare hands and otherwise keep them wrapped up or covered when not in use. The mirrors with handles, e-kagami, began to be used in the Muromachi period (1392–1573), and in the Edo Period (1600–1858) mirrors grew larger, approximately 5–7 inches in diameter, often produced in pairs known as awase kagami (lit. 'facing mirrors'), to facilitate viewing the front and back of larger hairstyles.

Considering that a significant portion of ukiyo-e ('pictures of the floating world') are devoted to images of beautiful women (bijinga) as fashion plates, it is not surprising that strategic placement of awase kagami was a technique the artists employed in order to feature additional angles of elaborate coiffures. Several prints in the exhibition demonstrate this method, including a design from circa 1795 by Hosoda Eishi (1756–1829) that is titled Sekidera and depicts an elegant courtesan before a black lacquer dressing table expertly holding another mirror behind her head as she carefully adjusts one of her hairpins while a shinzo (teenaged apprentice) observes her mentor. The poem in the cartouche alludes to Ono no Komachi (ca. 825–900) who was celebrated for her poetry skills as well as her great beauty, but was also notorious in her scorn for any would be suitors—a suitable allegory on vanity for a woman seated before a mirror. The poem is a reference to an episode from the Noh play Sekidera Komachi which tells a story set at the end of her life when she has retreated to a life of regret and solitude. This print is part of a rare untitled series alluding to seven famous episodes of her life (Nana Komachi), a favorite theme in ukiyo-e.

Another print in the exhibition inspired by the legend of Ono no Komachi by Keisai Eisen (1790–1848) from the 1820s' series, Modern Beauties of the Seven Komachi, also references the Sekidera episode and likewise shows an image of a beauty before a mirror. Here, the beauty is identified by name as the courtesan Shiratama of the Sano Matsuya house. The mirror sets the scene as her private space where she regards herself in a resplendent display of fabric and color.

She sits in full regalia before a dressing table which is lacquered in deep golden-brown hues and decorated with a pattern of gold floral crests. Her hair is adorned with gold lacquer ornaments and a brocade garment is draped on a kimono stand beside her. To the left of the table we see an example of an early product placement, a packet of Bien Senjoko face powder whose owner, a Mr. Sakamoto, was a frequent sponsor of prints at this time. Two other prints in the exhibition from the same period display the Bien Senjoko face powder, including one from the series Spring Dawn, A Contest of Beauties, by Utagawa Kunisada (1786–1865). The print depicts a beauty fixated on the application of burning moxa (a form of dried mugwort which was applied to the body in a manner similar to acupuncture). Smoke curls upward from a stick of incense in a porcelain censer and from the moxa on her foot. Her duress in enduring the painful treatment is indicated by the wisps of hair that fall into her face and emphasized by her loosened waist sash and the disarray of the partially open drawers of her dressing table. Kunisada cleverly utilizes a mirror to focus attention like a spotlight on the hairstyle on the back of her head which would otherwise not be visible to the viewer.

In addition to employing mirrors to set a scene or as a compositional device, mirrors are accessories, and small mirrors direct attention away from the outer-world, creating a self-contained sense of intimacy. A painting on silk mounted as a hanging scroll by Kikugawa Eizan (1787–1867) depicts a standing geisha pausing to look in a hand mirror and gently wiping her cheek with a white cloth. Geisha are professional entertainers identified by comparatively restrained coiffure and clothing. The large black box behind her holds her shamisen—the instrument most closely associated with geisha. Her subdued dark green kimono is tastefully decorated with stylized turtles swimming in meandering waves along the hem, but she nods to fashion and business of attraction with the ornately decorated under-layers of her clothing in alluring pinks and reds which are revealed at her collar and the opening at her feet. As she pauses to compose herself before her next performance, her attention is inward and private as she gazes into her hand-held mirror.

An interesting example by Kunisada utilizes the hand mirror not as a reflection of the beauty herself but as that of her ardor as a fan of a famous actor. The untitled print from the series Contest of Fans of Modern Actors depicts a young beauty seated beneath the large visage of the intimidating Ichikawa Danjuro VII (1791–1859) glaring down at her from within a cartouche in the shape of a folding mirror. She crosses her arms protectively and slightly tucks in her chin, apparently unable to meet his scrutinizing gaze. The scholar Andreas Marks has identified all six known prints of this series to portray actors in roles played in early 1822 and therefore dates this series to that year. Here, Danjuro VII is shown in the role of Konoshita Tokichi Hisayoshi from the play Gion sairei shinkoki, performed at the Ichimura Theater in the 3rd month of 1822.

Ukiyo-e artists frequently employed a mirror as a framing tool for portraits of kabuki actors or beauties and as a result, the view is exclusively of the reflection and the 'real' figure is not seen but implied. A fine example by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797–1861) from 1843 is Mirror of Women of Wisdom and Courage: Kaji of Gion, presenting an imaginary portrait of Kaji, the owner of a teahouse near the entrance to the Gion Shrine in Kyoto who was renowned for her poetry (a collection of her poems was published in 1707).

She was also reputedly the niece of the famous painter Ogata Korin (1658–1716), although that may be an apocryphal embellishment that evolved from her association with the Kyoto artistic milieu. She is dressed in the fashion of the day and paired with the bell flower—a favorite subject of Korin.

Kunisada produced multiple series in this style, with a flattering image of an actor in role as seen within the oval of a mirror resting on a handling cloth within a traditional black and gold lacquer mirror tray. The popular series, Mirrors as Stylish Collage Pictures includes sixty-nine (recorded thus far) actor portraits published from 1859 until 1861, four of which will be in this exhibition, including a pristine impression of a portrait of the actor Nakamura Fukusuke (1831–1899) as the dancing girl Sakurako in Edo-ganoko ninin Dojoji, staged at the Nakamura Theater in 1860.

By the early Meiji period (1868–1912) glass mirrors became available in Japan and largely replaced the use of traditional bronze mirrors. In addition to reflecting a crisp likeness, a looking glass could be manufactured in larger sizes and required no special handling or periodic re-polishing by a craftsman. In an amusing take on peeking into the boudoir with a newfangled glass mirror, we glimpse into the dressing room of a celebrity actor caught in the act of transforming himself into a role in a print by Toyohara Kunichika (1835–1900). The print irreverently shows the actor Kawarazaki Mimasu (Ichikawa Danjuro IX, 1838–1903, the fifth son of Danjuro VII mentioned above) as reflected in a mirror waiting for an assistant (unseen but for his hands) to lower a wig onto his head. The exposed-edge glass mirror is mounted on a simple red lacquer stand, in the foreground is a bowl of red pigment and a small covered cup, a make-up brush hangs to the right of the mirror.

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839–1892) explores the otherworldliness or alternate dimension found through the looking glass as a portal with a menagerie of grotesque visages before an enormous glass mirror framed in red lacquer with his 1873 composition depicting a chaotic scene from the farcical kabuki play Asahina. At center, the burly (and beloved) figure of Asahina (based on the 12th–13th century historical Asahina Saburo Yoshihide), grasps the neck and beard of Emma-O, the King of Hell, who writhes in agony while a host of demons with distorted faces scream in protest.

Modern artists make use of mirrors in more suggestive ways by revealing much less (or much more) of the sitter compared to classical prints. Perhaps one of the most interesting uses of mirrors in a composition is when they are not used for reflection. Woman Wearing an Under-Sash by Ito Shinsui (1898–1972) from 1921 depicts a view of a woman seated before a dresser, facing away from us. She tilts her head down while she uses a small half-moon shaped comb to smooth the hair from the nape of her neck upwards, towards her coiffure. She wears a pale pink under-robe subtly decorated with a shibori pattern (small white circles) which is secured with a striking deep red and white checked sash for which the print is titled. The glass mirror, reflective qualities achieved by printing with mica, tilts slightly to show only her bare forearm, her face is entirely unseen, and yet, there is little doubt of her beauty. Hirano Hakuo (1879–1957) employs the same technique with his print Before the Mirror published in circa 1932.

In contrast, Ishikawa Toraji (1875–1964) uses a mirror in his print, Spring Time of Life (Youth), to set the scene of a moga ('modern girl') unabashedly revealing all while she adjusts her hair before a large red lacquered dresser. The print is from Toraji's 1934 self-published landmark series, Ten Types of Female Nudes, which featured decidedly un-traditional Japanese women in various states of nudity languidly on display in interiors with noticeably Western-style furnishings. The audacity of the prints caught the attention of government authorities who found it to be offensive and the series was banned as part of a conservative campaign against corrupting Western influences.

The exhibition will include over forty prints and one painting, including works by Hosoda Eishi (1756–1829), Kikugawa Eizan (1787–1867), Keisai Eisen (1790–1848), Utagawa Kunisada (1786–1865), Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797–1861), Toyohara Kunichika (1835–1900), Yoshu Chikanobu (1838–1912), Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839–1892), Ishikawa Toraji (1875–1964), Hirezaki Eiho (1880–1968), Hashiguchi Goyo (1880–1927), Ito Shinsui (1898–1972), Torii Kotondo (1900–1976), Kishio Koizumi (1893–1945), Shusui Taki (b. 1938), Koichi Seai (b. 1946), and Contact Lens, the latest release by Paul Binnie (b. 1967).

Scholten Japanese Art is located at 145 West 58th Street, Suite 6D, between 6th and 7th Avenues. For the duration of the exhibition, March 15 – 24, the gallery will have general open hours (no appointments needed), 11 – 5 pm.

We are pleased to be participating in the schedule of events organized by Asia Week New York.

Asia Week New York


Scholten Japanese Art is open Monday - Friday, and some Saturdays by appointment only

Contact Katherine Martin at
(212) 585-0474 or email
to schedule a visit between 11am and 4pm preferably for no more than two individuals at a time.
Visitors are asked to wear face masks and practice social distancing at their discretion.

site last updated
May 25, 2023

Scholten Japanese Art
145 West 58th Street, suite 6D
New York, New York 10019
ph: (212) 585-0474
fx: (212) 585-0475