Kuroda Seiki's Morning Toilette on Exhibition in Modern Kyoto

By Tseng, Alice Y. | The Art Bulletin, September 2008 | Go to article overview

Kuroda Seiki's Morning Toilette on Exhibition in Modern Kyoto


Tseng, Alice Y., The Art Bulletin


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 Édouard 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 Kuroda'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 selfindulgent 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. …

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