Bijinga is a general term for paintings that are in the motif of so-called feminine beauty, or feminine looks and inner beauty. Similar figure paintings can be found in all ages and countries, but the term "bijinga" originated in Japan. While many bijinga paintings are of the school of ukiyoe (Japanese woodblock prints) from the Edo period, Western paintings having the same theme are also called bijinga.
Although one tends to be caught up in the notion that bijinga is a painting which merely depicts beautiful women, "Kojien" dictionary defines the term using the abstract expression that it 'emphasizes women's beauty', and "Shincho Encyclopedia of World Art" (SHINCHOSHA Publishing Co., Ltd, 1985, ISBN 4107302067) defines the term as representing "women's beautiful looks", and "Gendai Nihon Bijinga Zenshu: Selection of Masterpieces Vol. I" (by Chiyo SEKI, Shueisha Inc., 1979) defines it as being a quest for and having the motif of 'beauty inside women'; therefore the definition of a depiction of a beautiful woman is not necessarily the representation of the subject's true nature. In fact, bijinga in ukiyoe is stylized and is not a realistic depiction of beautiful women.
The term "bijinga" was created and shaped in The Japan Fine Arts Exhibition in the 1940's and 1950's. Before then, various works such as those found in ukiyoe, that are in the motif of women, were categorized as 'bijin-e' (paintings of beautiful women) and 'onna-e' (women pictures); but the latter term, for example, also included symbolic paintings of women with hikime-kagihana (drawn-line eyes and a hook-shaped nose) such as those found in "Genji Monogatari Emaki" (the Illustrated Handscroll of the Tale of Genji). It is considered that, around the end of the Meiji period, factors such as the rise of new painters who proposed new woman figures (Shoen UEMURA, Kiyokata KABURAGI, Shoen IKEDA, Tsunetomi KITANO, etc.) and changes beginning to be seen in the social cognition of women, which had been feudalistic in the past, contributed to the appearance of bijinga as a new category.
The category of bijinga applied retroactively to the paintings before the Meiji period. Typical examples of such case include rediscovery of Japanese ukiyoe paintings and 'shijozu' (paintings of Chinese beautiful women) in China. However, while there are many Western paintings which depict beautiful women, the themes in most cases concern mythology, or legend, history or religion (although this is not the case with many of the Western paintings after the 19th century), they cannot always be regarded as being the same as the Japanese bijinga.
On the other hand, there is also the view that the subject depicted in bijinga does not have to be a woman. Sometimes, ukiyoe depicting a young man in a homosexual relationship or an actor in a female role is also counted as bijinga.
Bijinga in Japan
Bijinga in ukiyoe
Paintings in the motif of feminine beauty can be found in various cultures. Bijinga has long been one of the themes in ukiyoe, and an example of the very early stage is 'Mikaeri Bijin' (Beauty Looking Back), which is nikuhitsu bijinga (hand paintings of beautiful women) by Moronobu HISHIKAWA. Later, with the establishment of nishiki-e (a color woodblock print), bijinga by Harunobu SUZUKI, many of whose paintings depicted beautiful women with girlish innocence, became popular. In the Tenmei period, beautiful, well-proportioned women with long arms and legs drawn by Kiyonaga TORII achieved popularity. During the Kansei period, more sensual, beautiful women drawn by Utamaro KITAGAWA became predominant. After the Bunka-Bunsei period, bijinga of a decadent style such as those drawn by Eisen KEISAI, which are of sadistic taste and represented perverse pathos, became popular.
The manner of drawing women in ukiyoe has a unique tendency. Although it may vary according to the times and the painters, bijinga is characterized by stylized woman figures having small eyes, or long-slitted and narrow eyes, and slender faces or faces with large jowls. However, as the large-eyed women drawn in modern Japanese manga are not the realistic reflection of faces of women that are considered beautiful today, small eyes can be called a style of bijinga, and it does not seem to suggest that small eyes were especially favored in the Edo period. When thinking about the sense of the times based on a painting, it is necessary to consider the matter by making a distinction between the parts which show the painting style, and the parts which show the changes in the sense of feminine beauty of the times.
Bijinga in the Meiji and Taisho periods
Even after the Meiji period, people still printed bijinga in ukiyoe with the style which was taken over from the end of Edo period. In the Taisho period, Yumeji TAKEHISA gained popularity by his bijinga which blended ukiyoe style with the trend of Taisho Roman (general term for the thought and cultural events that are suggestive of the Taisho period) called 'Yumeji shiki bijin' (beautiful women of Yumeji style); the bijinga of Yumeji style are still very popular even today.
Bijinga in Japanese art
Kiyokata KABURAGI of Tokyo and Shoen UEMURA of Kyoto were well-established in this area; they were called 'Shoen of West, Kiyokata of East'. Also, Shinsui ITO became famous in this area.
Bijinga and advertisement
From the latter part of the Meiji period until the Taisho period, bijinga came to be printed as publicity posters of companies and were circulated. It is also an interesting medium which tells us of the social situation and the mode of life of the time, about department stores, cruise ships, railways, soaps, beer, etc.
Today, stylized drawings of beautiful women (beautiful girls) are overflowing as never before, but many of them are isolated from ukiyoe or bijinga of Japanese art. Of those, Seiichi HAYASHI and Yusuke NAKAMURA, among others, are named as popular illustrators who inherit the style of bijinga since ukiyoe.