JAPANESE NUDES at Museum Sieboldhuis in Leiden

Gondaira Taichi Morning of Summer 2013 Copyright Gondaira Taichi Courtesy of IBASHO, Antwerpen

This exhibition not only explains the development of photography in Japan, it also confronts visitors with differences between Western and Japanese attitudes to the human body through nudes. Notices on the doors to the entrance to this exhibition warn visitors: some exhibited photos are explicit.

For those who do not heed such warnings, the journey starts with discovering 19th century Japanese photos. In Japan, photography was considered a “copy of the truth”. It did not take Japanese photographers long, to discovered there was a Western market for photos of bathing Geisha.

At the start of the 19th century, Japan had become one of the many countries where photography had become an acceptable art-form. Photographers started to experiment. Visitors come across examples by for instance Nakayama Unto, which resemble the hazy photos by David Bailey. Naked female bodies started to be treated as aesthetic objects.

Various photography movements developed. Visitors come across examples from movements like the ‘New Photography’, ‘Photo-realism’, ‘Social Realism’, as well as ‘Subjective’ and ‘Experimental’ photography. Of course, there are also abstract and surrealistic works.

Nearly all the over 200 photos take the female nude as subject. As exhibition texts point out: visitors are treated to the male perspective of female bodies. Only towards the very end of this exhibition, do visitors come across artists photographing the male nude. And even here, most photos showing male nude bodies were created by men taking the photos.

On leaving the quiet exhibition which contains quite a few iconic photos, I wondered about boundaries. When does art photography, realistic-documentary photography, or any of the other movements change into exploitation of models? When is a photo art? When does a photo of the naked human body cross a border and become mere exhibitionism, pornography? Is a visitor’s response to such questions culture-bound?   Kate  17th April 2019

Japanese Nudes continues at Museum Sieboldhuis until 8th September.