The Dance of the Beach Maidens
Kitagawa Utamaro (Japanese, 1753?–1806)
Edo period (1615–1868)
early 19th century
Triptych of polychrome woodblock prints; ink and color on paper
Overall: 15 1/4 x 29 1/2 in. (38.7 x 74.9 cm)
H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929
Not on view
Although Narihira's story became a literary work in the ninth century, no textual record of his elder brother, Yukihira, is known before the late fourteenth century, when the famous playwright Kanze Zeami used the legend of the exiled courtier as the basis for a Noh drama. The tale of Yukihira was subsequently reworked in many different forms. In the early eighteenth century, the playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon created it as Matsukaze and Murasame, to be performed in the puppet theater. Later, his version of the play was performed as a Kabuki drama. Finally, the motif of the unfortunate sisters was extracted from the plot and choreographed as a dance to be performed between acts of unrelated plays.
This performance, The Dance of the Beach Maidens, is represented here; the topic has undergone a considerable change from the historical source in the legend of Yukihira, indeed, the existence of the exiled courtier is not even implied here. Instead, the focus is on the two sisters who have become Edo-period goddesses, far removed from the impoverished girls of the original legend.
Kitagawa Utamaro's triptych represents this subject with only the faintest echo of its textual source in the romantic legend of Yukihira. Here, the two sisters have multiplied into nine beautiful women in grass skirts enacting a meaningless charade with buckets of seawater. In the milieu of the sophisticated urban culture of Edo, this frivolous evocation of rusticity appealed to a sentimental nostalgia for "the simple life of the sea."
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