I thought a lot about adjectives before starting this preview of an upcoming exhibition at the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, first and foremost because the show’s English title — “Ayashii: Decadent and Grotesque Images of Beauty in Modern Japanese Art” — begins with an untranslated Japanese descriptor. “Ayashii” is a common enough word in Japan, used in conversation to mean “suspicious” or “dodgy,” but by no stretch of the imagination has it made it into international usage. Why, then, I asked curator Reiko Nakamura, did the museum opt to use it in the English title?

“Even in Japanese, ‘ayashii’ is hard to pin down,” she allows. “This one word carries so many nuances, depending on context or how you write it. If you use one character, it can mean ‘alluring.’ With another, it is more like ‘mystical.’ In the end, we decided it was impossible to sum it up with a single English word, and instead invite visitors to form their own conclusions as they view the works.”

Shoen Uemura, 'Flame' (1918), Tokyo National Museum, on display through April 4
Shoen Uemura, ‘Flame’ (1918), Tokyo National Museum, on display through April 4

The exhibition, which opens March 23 in Tokyo and will travel to Osaka this summer, presents approximately 160 paintings, prints and illustrations that pushed the boundaries of how beauty was portrayed. The majority date from the Meiji and Taisho eras (1868 to 1926), a time when many artists in Japan, buffeted by rapid social changes and influenced by new ideas from the West, sought to move beyond superficial loveliness and probe the human heart. Paging through the exhibition catalog, I compiled a list of the adjectives I found there: kikai (bizarre), yōen (bewitching), taihaiteki (decadent), seisan (horrific), erochikku (erotic) and gurotesuku (grotesque). Together, they provide a hint of what “ayashii” means in the context of this show, and what you can expect to see.

A “prologue” of art from the Edo Period (1603-1868) sets the scene. The final decades of this age were turbulent times in which people sought to ease anxiety through ever more stimulating and novel distractions. Painters and woodblock printers obliged with sensational subject matter, as seen in a gruesome hell scene by Kawanabe Kyosai (1831-89) and gory, blood-spattered prints by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-92) and Ochiai Yoshiiku (1833-1904). One of the more curious exhibits is an iki-ningyō (lifelike doll), made around 1895 by Yasumoto Kamehachi (1826-1900). Such mannequins, life-size and incredibly detailed, were used in attractions at festivals and fairs, often arranged in shocking scenarios of extreme realism.

It is worth taking your time in this section as it provides insight into the values and experiences of the artists who follow. In some cases, you can see direct influences. Take, for example, the large painting of a standing woman by the 18th-century eccentric Soga Shohaku (1730-81). Titled “Beauty,” the subject nevertheless appears completely deranged. The bottom of her kimono has come undone, revealing a glimpse of undergarment and strangely oversized bare feet. Between her teeth she grips the remains of a letter nearly shredded to bits, telling us she has been rejected by her lover. This famous image, much studied over the years, was the direct inspiration for another work in the exhibition, “Flame” (1918), by the female painter Shoen Uemura (1875-1949). (Soga’s “Beauty” will be on view at the Tokyo venue only.)

While nearly all of the “beauties” on view are girls and women — with the occasional pretty boy or mermaid — only three of the artists represented are female. This is not due to bias or oversight on the part of the museum but is rather a reflection of how few women at that time were able to work as professional artists. Of the three, only Uemura can be said to have enjoyed success on the level of her male peers, her paintings selling well even during her lifetime. She was one of the few women appointed as an artist in the imperial household and in 1948 became the first woman to be awarded the Order of Culture for her contribution to Japanese art. Uemura’s “Flame,” which depicts Lady Rokujo from “The Tale of Genji” after she is jilted by Prince Genji, was the artist’s answer to criticism that her pretty portraits of women lacked emotional depth. Uemura, always meticulous in her research, is said to have visited institutions for the mentally ill in order to better understand madness. She may also have drawn on personal experience, having recently been disappointed in a love affair.

Sayume Tachibana, 'Anchin and Kiyohime' (1926), Yayoi Museum
Sayume Tachibana, ‘Anchin and Kiyohime’ (1926), Yayoi Museum

In contrast, the female painter Seien Shima (1892–1970) struggled under the prejudice against women artists. In her remarkable work “Untitled” (1918), a woman in a black kimono sits on the floor, her hair disheveled, staring directly at the viewer. Under one eye spreads an ugly bruise, as if she has just been struck. Rather than use a model, Shima studied her own face in a mirror when working on this painting. The bruise, she said, was symbolic of the many abuses routinely inflicted upon women by men. The third female artist in the exhibition is Hisako Kajiwara (1896-1988), a nihonga painter who, unwilling to limit herself to the usual subjects of fine ladies and famous women in history, drew attention to the plight of the poor by painting women from the lowest rungs of society.

Not all of the artists are well known and, with more than 30 artists represented, this exhibition is a welcome opportunity to become familiar with the work of artists you may not have encountered before. Fortunately for those who do not read Japanese, most of the explanatory materials are provided in English as well as Japanese, and a headset with an audio guide in English can be rented for an extra fee.

For me, one discovery was Sayume Tachibana (1892-1970), a creative talent whose work is rarely included in major shows because he worked primarily as an illustrator. Sickly from childhood and obsessed with themes of death and the supernatural, Tachibana worked in a Western style inspired by the foreign artists he admired, but his subjects are drawn primarily from Japanese folklore and legends.

One of the most haunting images in the exhibition is “Anchin and Kiyohime,” which Tachibana drew in pen and ink around 1926. Done in a style similar to that of Aubrey Beardsley, the monochrome composition depicts a tragic story of unrequited love. A young woman named Kiyohime falls in love with Anchin, a priest who has taken a vow of chastity and therefore must reject her affections. Transformed by jealousy into a vengeful serpent, Kiyohime wraps her body around a temple bell in which Anchin has hidden himself, and using the demon heat of her body, burns him to death. The strength of this work is the contrast between the horror of the moment and the beauty with which it is rendered.

Equally mesmerizing is Tachibana’s “Water Nymph,” in which a limp and naked woman sinks into a deep pool of water. Clinging to her body is a kappa, a river sprite said to lure people to rivers in order to drown them. The print was banned by the authorities in 1932, not only for nudity but also for glorifying death. As Tachibana and his contemporaries sought to expose feelings and desires that had previously remained repressed, they occasionally overstepped what even a society in flux would accept within the bounds of “ayashii.”

“Ayashii: Decadent and Grotesque Images of Beauty in Modern Japanese Art” runs through May 16 at the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, and July 3 to Aug. 15 at the Osaka Museum of History. For more information, visit www.momat.go.jp/english/am/exhibition/ayashii. Ticket Giveaway: We have five pairs of tickets to “Ayashii: Decadent and Grotesque Images of Beauty in Modern Japanese Art” at the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo to give to readers. To apply, visit jtimes.jp/tickets. Deadline: March 29.

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