In his popular anecdotal encyclopedia of Japan, “Things Japanese,” the 19th-century British Japanologist, Basil Hall Chamberlain, included the comment that “the nude is seen in Japan but not looked at.” This reflected a reality in 1890, when the book was published: Nudity was not a big deal, at least it wasn’t until Western notions took a firmer grip. The latest exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art Tokyo (MoMAT) looks at attitudes to nudity in Japan through artworks from 1880 to 1945.

It starts with some early works that show the state of innocence with which such nudity was viewed in a society where public bathing was part of everyday life for a great many people. These include a pair of watercolors by Tama Eleonora Ragusa, the Japanese wife of the Italian sculptor Vincenzo Ragusa, and a print from “La vie Japonaise” (1898) by the French cartoonist Georges Bigot, who treats the laid-back attitudes toward mixed bathing with a satirical wink.

In order to win the respect of the Western nations, the Japanese felt obliged to not only adopt Western technology but also some of their social and cultural mores. With the spread of Western art in Japanese society, this included a rather complex and conflicted attitude to nudes, which had odd “escape clauses” that allowed full-frontal nudity if it served some mythic or allegorical purpose.

Although a highly competent painter, Kaneyuki Hyakutake didn’t seem to have quite grasped this distinction. His “Reclining Nude” (1881) is the sort of painting that would only have been suitable for hanging in a low-class bordello or the apartments of a rakish bachelor at that time. Nevertheless, it is an interesting attempt to enshrine the Japanese female form among the goddesses and allegories of Western nude painting. Unfortunately, for modern audiences in Japan, Hyakutake’s nude is more likely to evoke Ayako Imoto, the popular sailor-suited TV adventuress, on account of her thick eyebrows.

However, Seiki Kuroda, the painter most influential in establishing Western-style nude painting in Japan, understood what was required in terms of aesthetic and moral respectability. His models were either European women or Japanese who conformed to Western standards of physical beauty, with the salacious element downplayed in favor of something slightly more ethereal.

This is most clearly seen in the exhibition’s centerpiece, the triptych “Wisdom, Impressionism, Sentiment” (1899), where three female nudes representing the allegorical qualities stand icily erect against a golden background that suggests they inhabit some platonic plane of the mind.

From this slightly pompous high point, the exhibition then looks at how subsequent painters either normalized the nude or deconstructed it.

Lost in rolls of feminine rotundity, Tadaoto Kainosho’s “Nude” (1921) is hardly anyone’s idea of a goddess — just a chubby girl the painter seems to have taken a shine to. Sotaro Yasui’s “Studio” (1926) perhaps goes further in this direction, effectively treating the naked model as a piece of furniture. She is shown lying on a bed in the artist’s studio, which is also clearly his living quarters, while the artist, his wife, and child sit nonchalantly next to her. This is almost a return to Chamberlain’s idea of the nude being seen but not looked at.

Other artists, however, wanted to look deeper, focusing intensely on the aesthetic qualities of the nude. This essentially meant breaking it down into its component parts of form and color. With his “Reclining Nude” (1908) and “Sitting Nude” (1918), Ryuzaburo Umehara seems to be more interested in the patches of light and color created by the female form. Other artists, such as Tetsugoro Yorozu, distilled the shape of the naked female to its essentials.

Sometimes such deconstruction seems to reveal a touch of misogyny, as with Yorozu’s Cubist-influenced “Leaning Woman” (1917). The exhibition includes the preparatory work leading up to this famous painting, including a largely realistic study of a rather boyish female nude from 1913, which formed the basis of a process of concentration and exaggeration that led to the frankly monstrous form present in the final work. It is noticeable that while Yorozu distorted the lines and shapes of this model, he also played up the feminine, making the final product into an approximation of a primitive fertility goddess.

This hints at some of the issues raised by depicting the naked Japanese female in an imported artistic language that had evolved depicting the more curvaceous forms of Western women. Whether it is Hyakutake’s “Reclining Nude” or Yorozu’s “Leaning Woman,” this tension is one of the interesting points of the exhibition. It is also evident in Narashige Koide ‘s paintings, each one of which has been linked by the curators to a similar work by the French painter Henri Matisse. In contrast to Matisse’s squat, heavy-hipped French models, Koide’s slender Japanese models seem strangely elongated. They could almost be Mannerist paintings, with their long backs exposed in oils. Faced with images like this, one can’t help reflecting on how traditional Japanese art, with its elegant kimono-clad beauties, was designed to show Japanese ladies at their best.

“Undressing Paintings: Japanese Nudes 1880-1945” at The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, runs till Jan. 15; admission ¥850; open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (Fri. till 8 p.m.); closed Mon. (except. Jan. 2, 9, 2012) and Dec. 28-Jan.1. For more information, visit www.momat.go.jp.

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