Ishikawa Toraji Ten nudes

During the first half of the twentieth century, Japan’s traditional aesthetics interacted with ideals of European contemporary lifestyle, resulting in a vibrant period of Japanese modernism and the creation of Asian Art Deco paintings, prints, design and fashion. From the 1920s to the tumultuous years when militarism pushed the country towards war during the mid to late 1930s, Japan was inundated with a pulsating consumer culture and new technologies from abroad. Japan’s cities went through a major redevelopment and featured bustling streets filled with department stores, cafes, teahouses, movie theatres and ballroom dance halls that catered to a new generation of urban pleasure seekers. Some of the most representational images of the era were woodblock prints produced with the same refined techniques used to make eighteenth- and nineteenth-century ukiyo-e prints. These beautifully crafted works of art modernised their subjects and brought to life the fashions, ideals and lifestyles of the times.

One of the most celebrated and controversial series of prints of this dynamic era is Toraji Ishikawa’s Ten nudes. In 1934, at the age of fifty-four, he collaborated with the woodblock carver Yamagishi Kazue to self-publish a series of deluxe polychrome large-format prints featuring graduating colours and glistening mica backgrounds. Toraji’s tour de force, Ten nudes depicts Japanese women in fashionable 1930s lounge room and bathroom interiors that are decorated with Art Deco furniture, fabrics, rugs, curtains, wallpaper, tiles and fittings. The figurative style is influenced by his travels and studies in Europe, and the prints feature voluptuous nudes sporting soft permed waves, plaits, ponytails or chic bob hairstyles that were favoured by modern Japanese women of the time. In the tradition of ukiyo-e bijin prints (prints of beauties), these contemporary women are captured at private moments in the seclusion of intimate home settings, playing with pets, reading a book or bathing. Their natural, languid poses are accompanied by accessories of pleasure and leisure in the form of stretching cats, a fluffy Pekingese dog, a scattering of mah-jong tiles, a quintessential 1930s blue parrot, and in one case a woman looking at a book of historical woodblock prints that can be interpreted as the artist linking himself to the tradition of ukiyo-e.

The tenth print in the series, and the most risqué, Dance evocatively depicts a stripper illuminated by stage light, in high heels, with a far from modest netted shawl. This famous print is indicative of the freewheeling era and a scene that may have been found at small night club in the back streets of Ginza or in numerous other entertainment districts of 1930s Tokyo.

Due to the series’ sensual and explicit nature and its release being made during times of growing political authoritarianism, police attempted to ban the series at the time of its release and Toraji only produced one further single sheet nude print in 1936. In contrast to these hedonistic works, Toraji became a war artist from 1938 to 1943 and documented Japan’s expansion throughout the Asia-Pacific region with sketches, paintings and even two large canvases depicting Japanese air victories over American planes. After the war Toraji remained active to his death in 1964, producing oil paintings primarily of Japanese coastal landscape, but never achieved again the finesse, notoriety and controversy of his hallmark Ten nudes series from 1934.

Wayne Crothers, Curator, Asian Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2015)