They’re laughing in the rain. After looking at this picture a while, I thought – there must be a story here. But I don’t know what it is.
What drew my eye in the first place? The unexpected. Looking at the background I would have expected something more formal, more formulaic, flatter.
Instead the women in it have a sense of mischief, of movement, of brightness. I see it in the way they stand, how they look at each other, the clothes they wear. It’s in the unexpectedness of their bare feet, their laughter in the rain. It’s in the way their kimonos, lifted or blown, expose bare legs and red undergarments.
And then there are the differences between them. The young woman in the middle wears a bright, ornately patterned kimono, though I can only guess at the details of the images on it. Body elegantly arced, feet facing one of her companions, face the other, shoulders toward us – she includes everyone in her movement, even us.
Contrast that with the others. They wear kimonos more modest in design, more everyday, more informal. They are looking at their brightly dressed companion, bodies turned toward her, framing her for us, guiding our eyes back to her. She seems the center of their attention.
Where are they coming from, where are they going, these barefoot women clutching their umbrellas in the grey rain?
And who created this picture? The artist is Utagawa Kuniyoshi, a 19th century Japanese master of print-making. He was best known for creating pictures of Japan’s historic and legendary heroes and brigands, and for including dreams, apparitions and heroic feats in his images. But he also worked actively in other genres, creating prints like this one.
There is a name for the kind of art he created: floating world art, or ukiyo-e in Japanese. It was art that was meant to reflect moments in time, in a time and place far from the cares of the everyday world. It was an art for dreaming on, full of beauty and mythical heroes and popular entertainments.
And it was art that was meant for a wide audience, for people who had not been buyers of art before. Because the pictures were produced in large quantities as woodblock prints so they were less expensive than a single original work, more affordable to the then-growing merchant class.
But success and sales, then as now, depended on an artist building a group of supporters who love his work. It took Kuniyoshi time to develop his own style, then to become popular and well-known. And as he developed he was influenced not just by his Japanese teachers and fellow artists but by the Dutch and German engravings of western art he collected, by the way they were composed and the light and shadow effects used in them.
So there is more than one story behind this image – there is the story of the artist himself, and of the time he lived in. Those we can learn a little bit about.
We can see how he learned from other artists, studying one their work even when he was separated from them by time and place. We can catch a glimpse of what it was like for him, working in his own time and place, under an authoritarian regime, for a particular audience.
But – I still don’t know the story of the women laughing in the rain. I guess I’ll have to imagine it myself.
And really, isn’t that one of the things art should do? Waken curiosity and imagination?