Japanese Modernism Across Media


Painting of the Impure Aspect of the Human Realm

Painting of the Impure Aspect of the Human Realm (13th Century).

And with that final, damning painting of a woman smiling out at her objectifiers, we reach the end of this exhibit.

Once again In Keeping up the Pureness (2004), we see an act of self-mutilation, this time done in order to spare the subject the pain of having others objectify her naked form. Although one can argue the subject is still being objectified, as her decision to objectify herself does not necessarily negate the actual objectification that will then follow, it still provides a sense of agency and power to the subject that the female subjects of the kusōzu did not have.

Comparing Matsui's version with the version to the left, Painting of the Impure Aspect of the Human Realm (13th century), there is already a marked difference, both in the treatment of the courtesan in the scroll as a sex object and in the way her beauty (and its disintegration) is maintained above all else. As with every painting she creates, Matsui has still created a beautiful subject in a beautiful painting. The difference between her version of beauty and that of the unknown painter of the 13th century Buddhist scroll, however, is marked. 

Below is a more modern version of the kusōzu painted in 1874. The inherent misogyny, however, remains unchallenged. And that is what sets Matsui apart, both from the past masters she emulates in her works and even those of her contemporaries. Matsui does not shy away from uncomfortable truths; rather, she makes us, her audience, face them head on. Just like the kusōzu forced Buddhist monks to confront their lust for women, Matsui also forces her audience to face the disquieting sexist and nationalist motifs that have been inherent in the canon of Japanese art. Through her use of trauma as the means by which to grab her audience, Matsui's paintings function in the same way that pain works within the human body; her use of trauma in art is a signal to wake up her audience and to encourage them to deal with issues of misogyny, narcissism, loss, and tragedy that continue to threaten Japanese society today.

In an interview with the Japan Times, Matsui makes the following statement:

"Japanese culture has become too clean. Our five senses are too blunt. I think Japan needs some fear to stimulate the sense of pain.”1 

Through her use of nihonga as a subversive vehicle through which to challenge older works and motifs, Matsui creates art that, while at first beautiful, slowly transforms and reveals the ugliness that lies underneath.

1. Emily Wakeling, “Fuyuko Matsui Finds Vitality in Decay,” The Japan Times, January 12, 2012, http://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2012/01/12/arts/fuyuko-matsui-finds-vitality-in-decay-2/.

Kobayashi Eitaku, Body of a courtesan in nine stages of decomposition. Ink and colour on silk. 1874. Source: http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=3168105&partId=1