Story V | The Nude

Nude Installation
Shinichi Maruyama at Lesley Kehoe Galleries

Naked or Nude? Sexualized, Objectified or Beautified?

On January 15 1889 Directive number 39 from the Japanese Ministry of the Interior banned nude illustrations, defined as ‘nude pictures of beautiful females and other similar pictures.’ (Satō,D. Modern Japanese Art and the Meiji State The Politics of Beauty.) Given the long history of shunga, erotic pictures, in Japan, this may come as something of a surprise. However, we need to consider that Japanese shunga were for private use and enjoyment, not for public display, and that the figures depicted, despite graphic detail of ‘the honourable act’, were almost always partially clothed. Added to this is the equally longstanding tradition of communal bathing and the non-sexualization of nakedness. So what was it about ‘nude’ painting and illustrations that caused a government ban?

The works included in Story no. 5 trace the idea of the beautiful woman, the objectified and sexualized woman and the Nude through the inspired works of contemporary photographer Shinichi Maruyama (b. 1958), the prints of prize-winning, multi-talented artist Ikeda Masuo (1934-1997) and leading artist of the early 20th century Shin Hanga (New Print movement) Itō Shinsui (1898-1972).

The Meiji government (1868-1912) was committed to Japan being acknowledged as a ‘first rate modern nation’ and this involved the adoption of Western technology, with some importation of Western thinking, but always with ‘Japanese spirit’. Satō suggests that objecting to the nude on the grounds of public morality avoided any deep thinking about the religious and historical background of the nude in Western art, ‘Doing so guarded against the wholesale importation of the Western spirit while still avoiding any direct challenge to the validity of Western thought and religion, which was something that nude painting might lead to.’ He further suggests that nude paintings ‘were accepted as an institutional motif for the introduction of Western art’ and that the adoption of nude painting by Japanese artists was ‘divine in form only, having no content whatsoever’. Art critic John Berger (Ways of Seeing) would argue that the ‘content’ of much of European nude painting were the conventions ‘by which women have been seen and judged as sights’ and that the principal protagonist, the spectator, generally presumed to be male, is never painted.

Admittedly addressing the nude in European art, Berger writes that to be ‘naked’ is to be oneself and to be ‘nude’ is to be seen naked by others, that a naked body has to be seen as an object to become a nude. This would seem applicable to the Japanese acceptance of nakedness in the public bathhouse, but not to the nude painting in public space. The Nude requires an audience, is ‘elevated’ to art, even if somewhat voyeuristic, and is defined in the realms of beauty, perhaps classically associated with the semi-religious and the divine.

It would be remiss in this context not to mention the world of ukiyoe, the courtesans and the pleasure quarters the woodblock print artists depicted. The political implications of art were not restricted to the Meiji period. Ukiyoe artists of the Edo period (1615-1868) evaded censorship by giving moralizing titles to their print series and by substituting famous courtesans of the day for classic poets and meisho (famous places with literary associations). Certainly these were produced for an audience and often had a voyeuristic perspective, the spectator implicit in that perspective. Courtesans were identified, the addresses of the tea houses where they were to be found, and sometimes, as in Utamaro’s 18th century series Ten Types in the Physiognomic Study of Women (Fujin Sogaku Jūtai), also their ‘amorous qualifications’. (Utamaro’s ‘Fancy-Free Type’ for example). The courtesans are either fully or partially clothed, shall we say thereby retaining the mystery of the imagined, rather than the banality of the naked? If ‘nude’, they are usually pictured at the natural activity of bathing with seeming unawareness of the implicit spectator…the aspect of ‘looking through a keyhole’ so readily adopted by Degas for example.

Itō Shinsui (1898-1972)

In the early 20th century, we see the influence of the abovementioned Western ‘institutional motif’ as well as the concern with public morality. The nude continues to be depicted at toilette, but the Yoshiwara courtesan is transformed to the genteel ‘ordinary’ woman engaged in everyday activities. The Japanese spirit is retained, along with a sense of nostalgia in the works of Itō Shinsui (1898-1972), a leading artist of the Shin Hanga, New Print Movement. The woman may be said to be objectified in the sense that she is the icon of traditional Japan and a nostalgic longing for its return, but she is beautified rather than sexualized.

Itō Shinsui (1898-1972)   Woodblock Print c.1931
From The First Series of Modern Beauties (Gendai Bijinshu dai-isshu)
Dai oban tate-e 28.4 x43.5 cm
signed and dated at lower left, Showa rokunen nanagatsu Shinsui (Showa 6 [1931], July, Shinsui) with artist’s seal Shinsui, publisher’s seal Watanabe,
POA   To purchase this work contact

Itō Shinsui (1898-1972)   Woodblock Print c.1924
Mica ground rare for this artist
Dai oban tate-e 27.6 x 39.5 cm
Signed and dated at upper right, Taisho jusannen nanagatsu Shinsui saku (Taisho 13 [1924], 7th month, by Shinsui), with artist’s seal Shinsui, publisher’s seal Watanabe
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Other historical woodblock prints  also available

Ikeda Masuo (1934-1997)

Modern 20th century artists struggled with the tenacity of nostalgic tradition and the apparently incompatible adoption of Western ideas. In the post-war 50’s and 60’s Parisian studios were full of young Japanese artists searching for new ideas and techniques. One of these was Ikeda Masuo (1934-1997), painter, sculptor, ceramicist, prize-winning author and printmaker, and filmmaker. He was the first Japanese to have a one-man show at the New York Museum of Modern Art in 1965, in the same year winning the Grand Prix at the International Print-making Biennale in Ljubljana; in 1966, the First Prize at the International Engraving Biennale in Cracow, and first prizes at the Biennales of Vienna and Venice, where he was only the second Japanese to win in this category.

In the works shown, Bachelor’s Dream and Landscape from Window C, we observe the unashamed, in title and perspective, voyeuristic view of women, yet in their production-line repetition, we perceive the artist’s commentary on the impersonal consumerism of the 60s that pervaded both Japan and the US. Partially clothed, do we note the Parisian influence or that of traditional Japan? In Woman From New York, a Vogue-influenced shirt, offered of course in different colours, strides across the canvas without its wearer – certainly woman objectified. Interestingly, Japanese commentators speak of Western women being objectified by fashion and the consumer paradise, while Western commentators speak of the rise of consumerism in Japan. In frustration at the continued cultural stereotyping of art, Ikeda is noted as saying, ‘Why do Westerners insist that Japanese artists remain ‘quaint’ and  ‘traditional’ in order to fit their image of artistry in Japan? (Ikeda Masuo 1967 Time Magazine July 1967)

Ikeda Masuo (1934-1997)
Lithograph 1966 Edition 12/20
71.6 x 54 cm
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Ikeda Masuo (1934-1997)
Lithograph 1966  Edition 16/20
37 x 53.3 cm
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Other works by Ikeda Masuo also available

Shinichi Maruyama b. 1958

What might a Shinichi Maruyama ‘Nude’ look like is the question that caused the New York based photographer to seek solitude. Sequestered from family and studio, he pondered the nature of an original contribution to the classic Western genre of ‘Nude’. From a high school interest in cameras and girls, the self-acknowledged technical geek would naturally come to a manifestation of the Nude that fused his creative and technical abilities. With the history of his genre photography and the legacy of pioneering predecessors Étienne-Jules Marey (1830 -1904), Eadweard Muybridge (1830 –1904) and Thomas Eakins (1844–1916), the study of DuChamp’s Nude Descending The Stairs, combined with the possibilities of 21st technology and his mastery thereof, we see an artist transcending previous conceptions of the Nude.

Pictured Left : Étienne-Jules Marey – Man Walking (1890-91)
Pictured Right : Marcel Duchamp – Nude Descending The Stairs (1912)

Sculpted from over 10,000 images, the works embody the principle of contemporary photography that what is important is what happens behind the lens not in front of it. (Les Walkling) The creativity and overall mastery of Shinichi Maruyama extends to personal supervision of printing and specification of framing. The artist was in Melbourne to collaborate with artist, philosopher and printer Les Walkling in the printing of the works for Lesley Kehoe Galleries. As with Les’ collaborations with renowned photographer Bill Henson, the collaboration was as all collaborations should be, one of mutual sharing and inspiration.

In the astoundingly original series that emerged from Shinichi’s meditative solitude, one does not take on the role of voyeur, rather one feels at one with the image, captivated by its ethereal movement and the mystery of its suggestion. The figures, of non-specific gender, are neither objectified nor sexualized, they are beautified. There is a lingering resonance of the semi-divine, even the primitive in the homage of dance. This is the Nude as we have never experienced it before.

LKG_SHINICHI_Nude-9-650Nude #9 (1/1)   Shinichi Maruyama 2012
Archival Pigment Print (signed, dated and numbered)
161.3 × 161.3 cms
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Other works by Shinichi Maruyama also available to purchase on Artsy