Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on June 2014

"Profile of a Woman," 1926-7 by Takeji Fujishima (Courtesy of POLA Museum of Art)

The latest exhibition at the Bridgestone Museum of Art is a small but fascinating look at the motif of the Chinese dress in early 20th-century Japanese painting. Why did so many Western-style Japanese painters of this era get their models to don the gaudy elegance of a neighboring country?

One obvious explanation is that the typical Chinese dress, a slightly modernized version of the old Qing Dynasty qipao (mandarin gown)—sometimes with a slit up the leg, sometimes without—was simply an elegant and colorful garment that was appealing to paint.

It certainly fit in with the slightly lurid palette that was favored in those days, as we can see in Perfume (1915) by Takeji Fujishima, who, along with Ryuzaburo Umehara, is one of the main painters featured here, although there are works by other well-known Japanese painters as well.

One of the theories put forward is that these paintings are, oddly enough, examples of “Orientalism.” This is a process of projection and “privileged” perception—identified by the Palestinian cultural critic Edward Said—that supposedly subordinates weaker countries and cultures to stronger ones by emphasizing the exotic.

It is usually associated with Western imperialism and post-colonialism, but in this case Japan was supposedly playing the Western role and casting the rest of Asia in the role of an exoticized and sexualized artistic subject.

One possible weakness of this thesis, however, is that most of the models in the works were actually Japanese. Even Sotaro Yasui’s famous Portrait of Chin-Jung (1934) is a painting of a Japanese lady—Chin-Jung being a playful nickname.

In many works, such as Seishiro Yata’s endearing Girl Who Put on Chinese Clothes (1927), there is more a sense of cosplay or fashion expediency, as the Chinese dress was at its height of popularity in Japan in the early 1930s. Ryuzaburo Umehara’s lurid and savage canvases featured his wife in Chinese dresses that she made up expressly for the purpose of modeling for her husband.

Rather than a prelude to imperialism, the Japanese interest in the garment therefore can better be understood as an attempt to find a modern fashion aesthetic that better suited the Asian physical type. One strength of the Chinese dress was that it could be modernized much more successfully than the more cumbersome Japanese kimono.

Takeji Fujishima was particularly interested in creating a modern sense of Asiatic beauty to compete with the aesthetic dominance of the West. One of his goals as an artist was to paint profile portraits of Japanese women that could compare with the exquisite beauty of the Renaissance profile portraits he had seen in Italy. In his memoirs he admitted the difficulties.

“I was stuck because I couldn’t find a Japanese woman with a beautiful profile,” he uncharitably wrote. “They might be beautiful seen face-to-face, but seen from the side half, their beauty disappeared.”

In Profile of a Woman (1926-7) he finally found a model to serve his purpose, although photos of the girl suggest there may have been a  degree of stylization and exaggeration.

In works like this, Japanese Western-style painters were able to escape from the “kimono look,” which had been commandeered by the rival nihonga painters, while also asserting a degree of independence from their Western models.

The Bridgestone Museum of Art, until Jul 21. See exhibition listings (Ginza/Kyobashi/Tokyo) for details.