Salem Stories and Tips

Geisha Beyond the Painted Smile

Geisha toggle replica Photo, Salem, Massachusetts

Once Japan was open to trade with the western world, the Geisha became a symbol of desirable enticing women from that country. Nagasaki, Yokohama and Kobe were famous seaports offering the charms of those secretive, mysterious, talented women. As we moved from one display to the next, in that special exhibit, called Geisha Beyond the Painted Smile, in the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA, their exotic mysterious lifestyle slowly unfolded.

Oil paintings, depicting 19th century Geisha entertaining westerners, were in the first room. Young girls were sold to an okiya by needy parents or instilled in that lifestyle by a Geisha, who happened to, also, be the girl’s birth mother. She was trained to play musical instruments, to dance while other Geisha played and to sing and act out beautiful love stories familiar to Japanese culture. Her training was a very expensive undertaking by the house that owned her. Her manners and deportment were above reproach, and her elegant appearance was superior to even the wealthiest women in Japan.

Apprentise Geisha had their hair styled once a week and learned to sleep with their heads on a block of wood to keep their waxed hairdo undisturbed. Full Geisha wore wigs; several were on display. Beautiful hair ornaments and lacquered combs, intended to be used for particular seasons of the year, were only part of that informative collection.

We watched a video of the Geisha’s white makeup being applied. Designs, made with templates, completed the face "mask" on the neck area and was expected to be very enticing where the natural skin was exposed under it. She painted her lips a blood red and her eyes were accented by very feminine eybrows.

A Geisha wore her obi tied in the back, identifying her from a prostitute, who wore it tied in the front. All her clothes had symbolic significance showing the seasons of the year, her status as a Geisha and/or encouraging good luck. On display was a ten ribbed fan, covered with brightly colored paper and used when she danced. Because of their high class elegance, the Geisha could command enormous sums of money when they entertained enabling them to be somewhat selective. A collection of name cards on one wall had, at one time, been used to remind patrons who their favorite Geisha was. Pictures were not allowed in the special exhibit, but I was able to purchase a replica of a little 19th century ivory toggle, used to hang pouches from a sash that closed her kimono. It allow her to have a place to store items she might need. It depicts a Geisha entertaining a westerner, probably a Russian.

The tsuzumi hand drum, that looked like a large hour glass, made different tones when its cords were squeezed and it was struck. A larger drum, called a taiko, created excitement with its rhythmic rumblings. The Geisha were also trained in the use of the shamisen, a three string instrument that looked like a banjo. A wood lacquer flute from the Edo period was in the exhibit.

In Japan today, the Geisha are still highly skilled entertainers with impeccable talent. Their life is still very secretive, but photographer, Yoko Yamamoto, gained their confidence and, after a twenty year friendship, was able to photograph them and write about them. Her pictures were part of the exhibit. The exhibit was open from February 14 to May 9, 2004.

These are the types of exhibits you can expect from this museum.

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