Sōseki, Nude Painting, and the Disappearing Subject
In 1889, the illustration of a naked girl by artist Watanabe Seitei in Yamada Bimyō’s short story Kochō led to a nationwide debate in Japan over the place of nudity in art. Over a decade later, the so-called rataiga ronsō (nude painting controversy) was commented upon by Natsume Sōseki in his critical treatises Bungakuron (1907) and Bungei no tetsugaku teki kiso (1907) and alluded to in such novels as Kusamakura (1906) and Sanshirō (1908). Sōseki repeatedly expressed negative views on the value of artistic nudity and once referred to nude painting as an “inherently dangerous” and “shallow art.”1 Sōseki’s distrust of the artistic value of nudity seems to have extended into his literature as well, for while many Meiji authors chose to represent naked bodies in their works (such as Kōda Rohan, Izumi Kyōka, and Shimazaki Tōson), Sōseki’s novels were virtually absent of any such depictions. In my paper, I propose that by omitting artistic nudity, Sōseki rejected the possibility of capturing a person in a fully exposed or “natural” state. Instead, he created narrators who were generally suspicious of the ability of art to represent real people, or who, when they did attempt to describe the human body in any detail, often bypassed the skin and went straight for the internal organs. Thus, as his narrators wavered between non-depiction and exaggerated close-ups, they suggested that a real person was something impossible to see or make visible from a fixed perspective.
1 Natsume Sōseki, Natsume Sōseki Zenshū (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten , 2002-2004), 16:93.