Released February 14, 2004

The Peabody Essex Museum Takes an Intimate Look
At the World of Geisha


—Distinguished by their striking white makeup, elaborate hairstyles, and exquisite examples of traditional kimono, geisha have been a powerfully evocative icon of Japan and a source of fascination for people around the world since the late nineteenth century. Yet their role as entertainers and artists has been largely misperceived through the lens of western culture. From February 14 through May 9, 2004, the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) offers an intimate look at the exclusive world of geisha culture while addressing cultural perceptions of this uniquely Japanese tradition in Geisha: Beyond the Painted Smile. Featuring some 150 breathtaking works—including paintings, hanging scrolls, woodblock prints, garments, musical instruments, ceramics, contemporary photographs, and video installations—the exhibition takes us on a journey from the early roots of geisha culture to the present-day teahouses where geisha perform. The exhibition leads visitors through several key themes, including cultural perceptions of geisha and notions of exoticism; the reality of geisha culture—from the emergence of geisha as artist and entertainer to the aesthetics of the profession; and the day-to-day lives and work of geisha in Japan today.

Many of the works on view are part of PEM’s outstanding Japanese collection, which is one of the world’s largest collections of Japanese art and cultural objects outside of Japan. Organized by Andrew Maske, PEM Curator of Japanese Art, Geisha: Beyond the Painted Smile is accompanied by a major publication. Related public programs, including a panel discussion, lectures, gallery talks, films, and a music performance, will be held in conjunction with the exhibition from February through May. Geisha: Beyond the Painted Smile will travel to the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco from June 25 through September 26, 2004.

“Geisha have been a source of fascination and fantasy for nearly 250 years, but they have also been misunderstood and misrepresented,” notes Andrew Maske. “Through this exhibition, visitors will have the opportunity to see geisha not only as cultural icons of beauty and allure, but also as real women of tremendous strength, talents, and dedication.”

Perceptions of geisha Geisha: Beyond the Painted Smile commences with imagery of the “exotic geisha”—works that convey the various perceptions of geisha as seen through the eyes of both westerners and Japanese people. In the nineteenth century, images of geisha were presented by European, American, and Japanese artists in fine art through new media, including woodblock prints, decorated porcelains, and hand-tinted photographs. In reality, not all of these works depict geisha authentically, yet for those who only knew Japan through travelogues and art, they sparked the imagination as to what geisha entertainment was. Unfamiliarity with Japan’s customs and traditions invariably led to confusion about the geisha profession, and many conflated all Japanese women to be geisha, or more pointedly, confused geisha with prostitutes or courtesans. While some westerners may have understood geisha’s role as an entertainer, they were more specifically thought of as entertainers of men, and therefore deemed wanton and risqué鮼br />
In the first section, the exhibition features depictions of “exotically” dressed and coiffed Japanese women in photographs, paintings, ceramics, and even movie ephemera from the 1960s—works that connote perceptions of geisha. Maiko (1893), for example, is an oil painting by Kuroda Seiki, who is considered one of the most important western-style Japanese painters of the late 19th century. The work, created after a sojourn in France, provides a new perspective on the traditional culture of the artist’s homeland, and is one of only three oil paintings designated as an Important Cultural Property by Japan’s government. Other works include ceramics with images of geisha created in Japan in the 1950s for the European and American markets, and photographs of courtesans that have been confused for geisha. Dated notions of Japanese culture from as late as the 1960s are also on display, including authentic lobby cards for The Barbarian and The Geisha, a film about an American diplomat in Japan (played by John Wayne) and a geisha who becomes his love interest; and a poster for My Geisha, which casts Shirley MacLaine as an actress who masquerades as a geisha to land a part in a film.

Women of Kyoto by Mihata J? (ca. 1830?1850), a pair of screens that provides a turning point for this section, shows a variety of Kyoto women, among them geisha and maiko (apprentice geisha). The work points out the difference between geisha and other women, and paves the way for an exploration of the realities of the geisha profession.

Geisha in reality The second section of the exhibition offers an up-close look at the gei or artistic accomplishments of geisha since the 18th century through objects, prints, paintings, photographs, and video. Geisha are artists who dedicate themselves to the highest standards of performance in traditional singing, dancing, and instrumental music, and undergo years of rigorous formal training before making their debuts. They typically perform in small, intimate settings, providing entertainment that goes beyond the mere stage show to encompass exquisite performance, masterful conversation, and game playing.

Geisha emerged as artists and entertainers during Japan’s Edo period (1603-1868), which saw the development of cities and the rise of a wealthy merchant class that channeled its wealth into luxuries of city life that included theater, restaurants, clothing, and the “pleasure quarters”. These quarters offered freedoms not found in the outside world—romance, elegance, and spontaneity, and a place where money, charm, and wit prevailed. This retreat into fantasy offered access to brothels, but men also went there to eat, drink, listen to music, write poetry, enjoy entertainment, and socialize. Here, geisha worked alongside prostitutes and courtesans—all legal forms of entertainment that were subject to regulation by the government. In the 1600s, the first geisha were men who provided music, comic relief, and all-around good company at parties. Women entered the arena in the mid-1700s, and by 1780, female geisha outnumbered males in this profession.

Today geisha are women who throughout their lives continue to advance their artistic proficiency. After making their debuts, geisha continue to spend many of their daytime hours practicing musical instruments, dancing, or singing. Appearance in annual or semi-annual stage shows and other events required still further rehearsal. Numerous prints and paintings in the exhibition show geisha performing in teahouses and onstage for larger audiences by invitation. In addition, the exhibition features musical instruments used by geisha, including drums, flutes, and especially the three-stringed shamisen.

The venues in which geisha typically perform—teahouses (o-chaya) or the traditional restaurant (ry?)—have changed little over the past one hundred years. Such locales follow a rule of “no first-time customers” that, combined with the high cost of geisha entertainment, make the world of geisha inaccessible and prohibitive. At the small gatherings held at these venues, geisha provide their clients with an atmospheric evening of banter and fun, pairing their talents in traditional dance and music with conversation, flirtation, and drinking games. The exhibition offers a contemporary glimpse at what an evening of entertainment entails with a video, commissioned by PEM, which follows a man as he takes his friend for an evening of geisha entertainment in the Gion district of Kyoto.

The alluring aesthetic sense of iki—akin to the French word chic—is maintained through a geisha’s dress and manners, in addition to her artistic pursuits. Small-hand-gestures in dance or the elegant manner of pouring sake are as important to a geisha as the selection of a kimono to suit the occasion. Geisha and maiko wear traditional silk kimono, geta (high wooden clogs), and white tabi (socks), and adorn their sculpted wigs with stunning accessories.They wear only the highest quality kimonos, play the finest musical instruments, and travel first class wherever they go—a matter of professional status rather than personal luxury. On view in the exhibition are exquisite garments worn by geisha, including splendid silk kimonos, obi sashes, and hair adornments, as well as woodblock prints, photographs, and a video that shows the intricate process of makeup application, hair preparation, and dressing.

The Contemporary Geisha The last section of the exhibition takes a behind the scenes look at geisha in the contemporary setting. A poetic series of photographs by Yoko Yamamoto, an artist who spent nearly twenty years photographing in the main geisha districts of Tokyo, captures seldom seen aspects of the culture, while a video installation features a contemporary geisha talking about her life. This section aims to leave a lasting impression of new iconic imagery of the contemporary geisha.

Related Public Programs Numerous public programs are being planned in conjunction with Geisha: Beyond the Painted Smile including gallery talks, lectures, a panel discussion, films, and more. Additional program information is forthcoming.


2/14 2:00pm Lecture and Book-Signing: Lesley Downer, author of Sadayakko: The

Real Madame Butterfly
. Morse Auditorium.

2/15 3:00pm Lecture: Yoko Yamamoto, artist. Morse Auditorium.

2/29 3:00pm Lecture and Book-Signing: Victoria Abbott Riccardi, author Untangling My Chopsticks. Morse Auditorium.


3/6 12-4:30pm Family Program: Hinamatsuri, Girls’ Day Festivities. Various locations.

3/21 2:00pm Lecture: Women in Japanese Art, Midori Oka, PEM Museum Educator

and Art Historian. Morse Auditorium.

3/27 10am-1:00pm Asian Cooking Series: Vegetarian Sushi and More: Japanese

Cooking with Rice
, Yumi Yoshida, teacher and expert chef.

Cotting Smith Assembly House.

Film Series on Japanese Women:

3/11 7:00pm Film: Makioka Sisters. Morse Auditorium. Introduced by Peter Grilli,

President, Japan Society Boston.

3/13 2:00pm Film: A Geisha. Morse Auditorium. Introduced by Andrew Maske, curator

of exhibition Geisha: Beyond the Painted Smile

3/20 2:00pm Documentaries: Good Wife of Tokyo and A Changing Heart.

Morse Auditorium. Introduction and Q&A with Leigh Devine,

director, A Changing Heart.

3/27 2:30pm Film: A Taxing Woman. Morse Auditorium.


4/24 10-2:00pm Woodblock Printmaking Demonstration: Hiroyuki Kitano, visiting

professor, Rhode Island School of Design. Atrium.

4/24 1-3:00pm Shamisen performance: Andrew Maske, PEM Curator of Japanese Art.

Japanese Gallery.

4/25 1:00pm Panel Discussion: Stereotyping Geisha Through Japanese Art (working

title). Bartlett Hall. Panelists include: Elizabeth Sabato Swinton, independent scholar; Allen Hockley, professor of art history, Dartmouth College; Sarah Frederick, Assistant Professor of Japanese, Boston University; Andrew Maske, PEM Curator of Japanese Art. Midori Oka, moderator, PEM Museum Educator and Art Historian.


5/5 1:00pm Lecture: Let the Good Times Roll: The Rise and Fall of the Pleasure

Quarters at Nakasu, Money Hickman, Art Historian. Morse Auditorium.

The exhibition, Geisha: Beyond the Painted Smile, is generously supported by the E. Rhodes and Leona B Carpenter Foundation.


PR Contacts:

April Swieconek  -  Director of Public Relations  -  978-745-9500 X3109  -

Whitney Van Dyke  -  Director of Communications  -  978-542-1828  -

‹ Back To Press Releases