Kuroda Seiki's Morning Toilette on exhibition in modern Kyoto.

Author:Tseng, Alice Y.
Position:Kyoto, Japan - Critical essay

The story of Kuroda Seiki (1866-1924), who left Japan for France at age eighteen to study law but returned almost a decade later an accomplished painter, eventually to revolutionize the art world in his home country, has often been told. A scion of wealth and political prominence, Kuroda made the bold and unorthodox career change without suffering many of the hardships or setbacks that usually beleaguered aspiring artists in late-nineteenth-century Paris and Tokyo. In fact, his precocious rise to fame was heightened rather than quashed by yet another of his bold moves--his decision to exhibit a life-size nude at the 1895 National Industrial Exhibition as his nationwide homecoming debut. The great controversy that erupted around the display of Kuroda's painting, titled Morning Toilette (Chosho) (Fig. 1), figures prominently in the history of modern Japanese art, most significantly for representing a critical moment of collision between two hitherto distinct sets of social, cultural, and artistic conventions. Measured in terms of contemporary notoriety and long-term impact, this work bears the same importance for Japanese modernism as Edouard Manet's Olympia does for European modernism, each being a painting of a nude female accepted to a high-profile government-sponsored exhibition, there to be spurned by a wide array of contemporary critics on artistic and moral grounds, and went on to stimulate unremitting debates and ruminations from specialists and generalists alike ever since. In addition to marking the professional launch of Kuroda, an artist commonly dubbed "the father of modern Western-style painting in Japan [Nihon kindai yoga no chichi]." (1) the Morning Toilette controversy amplified the ongoing debate over the proper place of Western-style painting (yoga)--essentially, European oil painting--in Japan in a complex time of modernization and cultural revitalization.

Originally created in France, Kuroda's painting of an unclothed woman standing before a mirror was first exhibited in Paris in 1893 and Tokyo in 1894, but it did not gain significant recognition and notoriety until its display in Kyoto in 1895 at the Fourth National Industrial Exhibition. While existing scholarship has situated Morning Toilette within the heated social and moral contestation over the introduction of the nude as a fine art subject to Japan, (2) no one has explored why the particular combination of Kyoto, the National Industrial Exhibition, and Kuroda's boudoir nude proved to be especially explosive. An exploration of the original circumstances surrounding the display of Morning Toilette in 1895 elicits three major factors that, together, facilitated the painting's extraordinary visibility: first, Kyoto as a modernizing city with a firmly established cultural lineage; second, the National Industrial Exhibition as a site promoting production, progress, and prosperity; and third, Morning Toilette as an example of European modern painting.

Although Kuroda was not the first Japanese to paint in oils, (3) nor was he the first to train abroad "at the feet of genuine masters at the seat of knowledge," (4) his soubriquet as the father of this art points to the new direction that he forged and the deep impact that his practice and teaching made on Japan. His participation at the National Industrial Exhibition in 1895 Kyoto established his reputation as the leader of a new approach to painting that eclipsed the previous practice of Western-style art for primarily utilitarian, didactic ends. The display of Morning Toilette at a prominent national venue beyond rarefied artist circles represents Ku-roda's intentional challenge to an older generation of practitioners and administrators whose conservatism and limited exposure to current artistic developments abroad made them wary of the total and unreserved assimilation of Europe that Kuroda embodied. Even as the print media at the time criticized Morning Toilette as a work too radical and too self-indulgent to serve national ends (that is, to enlighten and elevate the sensibility of the Japanese audience), the exhibition jury awarded this painting a bronze medal. In addition, the contention surrounding Kuroda's work in no way deterred the government-run Tokyo School of Fine Arts from offering him a prestigious lectureship the following year. These elements speak to a much more complex conception of inscribing national identity in painting during this period. The official recognition of Morning Toilette indicated in no uncertain terms that the painting was being upheld as an exemplar, although the lessons to be drawn from it turn out to be far from lucid.

Placing focus on the display of Morning Toilette in Kyoto affirms the circumstances of a painting's dissemination (in this case, public exhibition) as equally important as its facture, formal properties, or provenance in establishing its value. One of the marks of modernity deeply imprinted on this work, as much as the cross-cultural conditions that enabled its production, is the outpouring of public opinion that overshadowed the judgments of experts and connoisseurs in securing its historical significance. The public exhibitions sponsored by the central government in the revolutionary post-1868 climate of "civilizing and enlightening" the modern citizens of Japan activated new voices, viewpoints, and standards in assigning value to cultural objects. These events invited general participation and scrutiny that would test the delicate boundary between edifying and gratifying the newly conceived, newly unified "people" (kokumin) of Japan.

Another objective in scrutinizing late-nineteenth-century Kyoto as an active site for art is to retrieve some balance from a currently Tokyo-centric modern history. In extant writings on Japanese art history, the spotlight dims on Kyoto at the same rate that it intensifies over Edo, paralleling the latter's growth in political stature from the seventeenth century on. When the narrative reaches 1868-coinciding with the emperor's push for modernization and the capital's relocation to Tokyo (the new name for Edo)--Kyoto has been relegated to historiographical shadows, as if no innovations commensurate with the new era occurred in the old capital. An examination of the annals of Kyoto city and prefecture quickly disproves this misconception. The contributions of this region can be understood by underscoring the national impact of the Fourth National Industrial Exhibition that took place there and elucidating the event's connection to arguably the most notorious painting in the history of Japanese art.

Official Endorsement of Western-Style Painting

Enough has been written in English about the development of Western-style painting in nineteenth-century Japan that only an abbreviated discussion is required here for those readers not already familiar with this history. (5) Before the 1890s, the decade of Kuroda's return home, Japanese who practiced Western-style art were typically artists already trained in a traditional school of painting who decided to learn pencil sketching and oil painting either from books or a Japanese teacher who had studied briefly with a Westerner; only the luckiest handful were able to study directly with a skilled European artist in Japan. Beginning in the early 1870s, a select few managed to continue training abroad, the first ones being Kunisawa Shinkuro in London, Harada Naojiro in Munich, and Matsuoka Hisashi in Rome. Kuroda would stand out from these pioneers for undergoing his entire artistic training, for the unusually long duration from 1884 to 1893, in and around Paris. (6)

A combination of artistic, scholarly, and scientific curiosity prompted some of the earliest individual explorations of European art back in the eighteenth century, when Dutch traders constituted the only Western presence permitted in Japan. (7) During that time, books--art manuals and illustrated volumes--served as the only instructions-cum-models available for self-education. (8) The artist Shiba Kokan (1747-1818) best embodied the spirit of adventure, ingenuity, and persistence that propelled men of this generation to master Western scientific and art principles. (9) Captivated by techniques that conveyed recession of space and modeled form, Kokan devoted his efforts to closely depicting the real forms of things in paintings and engravings (Fig. 2). He authored two essays, "Discussion of Western Painting [Seiyoga dan]" and "Principles of Western Painting [Seiyoga ho]," expounding his theory of art. In his writings he regularly compared the ''truthfulness" of European art to what he considered the impracticality of Sino-Japanese art:


What is remarkable in painting is that it enables one to see clearly something which is actually not there. If a painting does not truly portray a thing, it is devoid of the wonderful power of the art. Fuji-san [Mount Fuji] is a mountain unique in the world, and foreigners who wish to look upon it can do so only in pictures. However, if one follows only the orthodox Chinese methods of painting, one's picture will not resemble Fuji, and there will be none of the magical quality in it which painting possesses. The way to depict Fuji accurately is by means of Dutch [that is, European] painting. (10)

The mimetic power of Western painting captured Kokan's intellectual curiosity. His pursuit of painting was part and parcel of his overall interest in the Western sciences, which he valued for their empirical precision. Kokan's assessment of oil painting as a practical instrument, in contradistinction to Sino-Japanese brush painting as a connoisseurial pursuit, anticipated the bifurcation that would consistently divide Japanese perception of the respective artistic traditions even as contact with European culture broadened half a century later.

The opening of Japan to diplomatic and commercial relations with five major Western nations (the United...

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