Course: EALC-499 (25409R) Course Title: “Geisha Girls”: A Japanese Icon in the Literature, Art, and Films of East and West Instructor: Lippit Course description: During the twentieth century the geisha became one of the most iconic images to signify Japan as an “exotic” nation of the “far East.” In 1867, three geisha were sent as part of Japan‟s tea house exhibition to the Exposition Universelle, Paris, and from the 1870s onward, the geisha was popularized abroad through photographs as well as artistic and literary depictions. From afar, the geisha epitomized a living work of art and descriptions of geisha often compared them to the decorative objects the term personified (geisha 芸者= literally, art + person). As Mortimer Menpes, the British painter who studied under James McNeill Whistler, wrote: “She herself decorates the room […] just as a flower or picture….” creating a scene that “becomes a bit of decoration as daring, original, and whimsically beautiful as any to be seen in this land of natural „placing‟ and artistic design and effect” (1904). If, in the West, the whole of Japan was thought of as an artwork, the geisha became its embodiment; she represented the very being of art. More than a century later, the geisha continues to occupy an important role in feeding Western fantasies of the “ever-elusive” nation Japan, an example being Arthur Golden‟s bestseller Memoirs of a Geisha (1997). The tremendous success of Memoirs of a Geisha and its cinematic adaptation by director Robert Marshall (2005)—not to mention the spin-off novels, art exhibitions, and numerous academic studies of the past decade— evidence that the figure of the geisha continues to intrigue Westerners. The geisha is one of the most popular, powerful, and enduring of Japanese figures/images to have survived the twentieth century. This course explores the culture and history of the geisha in Japan, as well as the reception and representation of the geisha in the West from the late nineteenth century to the present. Sources will include critical writings, fictional works by Japanese and Western writers, photographs, woodblock prints, paintings, and Japanese and American films (documentary and narrative).
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