This print by Kinchoro Yoshitora is one of a collection of around twenty 1700-1800s Japanese woodblock prints (ukiyo-e) in the city’s collection.
They were created as popular affordable art, costing about the same as two helpings of noodles from a street-vendor. They probably came into the Museum’s collection during the 1870s – Japan had only recently opened up to the West after over two centuries of isolation and the country’s culture, art and design were considered fascinating, influential and highly fashionable. These popular ukiyo-e prints were much collected, as the composition, perspective and use of flat colours and outlines were entirely new to Western art audiences. They would be a huge influence on Van Gogh and the Impressionists. Inevitably, there was a huge appetite among art-lovers to see genuine examples of this exciting new Japanese art, and regional museums such as Worcester were enthusiastically acquiring them, although curators often did not know very much about them. Some of the prints in this collection had artist attributions, most did not, and there was minimal documentation.
Researching this group of prints has involved collaborative international research that the internet has now made possible via academic forums. Little is known about the artists, but the date-stamp shows that this print was published sometime between 1843 and 1846. It is from a series of about seven prints showing the stages in silk-cultivation and idealised images of the women who were working on them. Bijin – images of beautiful women – were a standard subject of Japanese prints. In this print, the woman sitting on a silk loom is presented in an extremely glamorous way, wearing the sort of silk kimono that might have been made from the silk she produced, and with expensive tortoiseshell hairpins – probably not the usual attire for a worker in Japanese industry! In a subtle detail, the background of the print also has the texture and colour of woven raw silk.
The text on the print proved difficult to interpret until one Japanese member of an online forum showed the image to her calligraphy teacher, who identified the name of the woman as Asamizu and the text of the haiku poem on the print as
Shijo sa kuru
sore to wa mi e nu
kaiko ka na
Woven into silk
never look to be that way.
There is some suggestion that the poem would have been written by Asamizu herself.