Harumi Yamaguchi

Harumi Yamaguchi was born in 1941 in Matsue in the Shimane prefecture of Japan. She graduated from Tokyo University of the Arts where she trained as an oil painter. Yamaguchi began her career as a freelance illustrator as the director of advertising for the renowned retail establishment PARCO in Tokyo.

Yamaguchi contradicted cultural taboos and was on the forefront of feminism and female liberation in Japan in the 1970s and ’80s by creating highly sexualized images of powerful women using an airbrush. Airbrushing was a perfect medium for her chosen subject because it provides incredibly smooth colors and allows for even blending that, when applied skillfully, can mimic the delicate textures of water, fabric, and skin in a hyper-realist style. The choice of airbrushing is even more compelling because it completely removes the need for the artist to actually come in contact with the surface on which they are creating their works of art. Airbrushing was invented in the late 19th century and was quickly implemented into a commercial context, defining the clean aesthetic of art deco and streamline moderne in the 1930s. Airbrushing made a comeback in the early 1970s, after having gone out of style by the ‘60s, and was popular among pop artists. In contrast to other airbrush artists in the late 20th century, Yamaguchi’s work was contemporary, urban, and trailblazing while artists like the Californian illustrators were creating work that was retro and nostalgic, reminiscent of the classic styles of decades past. While Yamaguchi forged her own path from other airbrush artists of her time, she drew inspiration from another artist who had been thriving in the world of airbrushing since the 1940s.

Harumi Yamaguchi was most notably influenced by Alberto Vargas and his hundreds of airbrush paintings, which were published in both the Esquire and Playboy magazines beginning in the 1940s. His subjects were flirtatious, nearly (if not fully) nude, caucasian women. These women were portrayed as coy and sexy without being at all intimidating or aggressive. Yamaguchi borrowed aspects of his paintings but added her own touch, allowing her pieces to seamlessly fit into the world of high fashion, and further separated her work from that of Vargas by achieving a unique texture with the medium. The flesh of her seductive subjects “has a hard, satiny quality, like powder-coated steel,”  while Vargas’ pin-ups appear very delicate, showing off their toned yet fragile bodies. This distinction is not only influenced by artistic style, but by target audience and the artist’s perspective on how women should be portrayed. Vargas worked for magazines that catered towards men and are known for objectifying women and valuing a their appearance above all. Yamaguchi, however, was riding the new wave of femininity in Japan and sought to portray women as powerful and desirable. Her women truly embraced the aesthetic and aura of high fashion with the intensely contoured shading and seductive reflectiveness of their near plastic skin.


The ambiance and portrayal of subjects in Yamaguchi’s work is comparable to that of photographers Guy Bordin and Helmut Newton. The color palette used in these contemporary portraits were reflective of the 19070s and ’90s vibrant emerging feminism, often dressing her women in blue, pink, gold, and shiny fabrics. Even though Yamaguchi liked to show off her women as powerful feminist icons, she did not object to putting them on display for consumption. She directed the advertising for PARCO, which “sought to combine retail and creative activity with a consciously female focus.” While Harumi Yamaguchi created work for commercial commissions, she pursued her own purely creative projects, as well. She created several nude paintings in which a more full-figured subject has her back turned to the viewer and head turned for a semi-profile view, conveying a seductive, humble confidence and the feeling that the subject is aware and proud of her beauty, without being boastful or overly sexualized.

Even though Yamaguchi’s commercial paintings are identifiably retro, clearly reflective of the ‘80s aesthetic, contemporary culture is still appreciating the timeless beauty of these powerful feminine subjects and the creative genius behind them. Stüssy, a popular streetwear brand, did a collaboration with Harumi Yamaguchi and released a series of t-shirt designs with several of her works printed on the front and back. Project Native Informant unveiled the “first solo exhibition of Harumi Yamaguchi outside of Asia” in 2017. Located in London, this exhibition was indicative of the time in which these works were created. The prints are displayed in rooms with white, blue, and yellow walls with a hot pink carpeted floor, accompanied by two Sony televisions flipping through Yamaguchi’s advertisements for PARCO on a loop.

With feminism still going strong in many developed countries and now on the rise in others, it seems as though Yamaguchi’s work would be met with more controversy as it is being reintroduced in today’s political climate. However, backlash to the recent resurfacing of Yamaguchi’s girls is seemingly nonexistent, or at least not widely broadcast. The portrayal of these women is not overtly feminist without knowing the historical context of their creation, as most of them are nearly nude with slim, toned bodies and perfectly made-up faces, but the almost subconscious sense of empowerment that comes from these images is undeniable. The powerful poses, perfect make-up, bold colors, clothing choices, and facial expressions communicate a sense of feminism and women’s liberation and the displaying of their near-nude figures is freed from the scopophilic context in which the female figure is often found. The bare bodies become more of a statement of freedom, declaring equality and demanding that they be seen for something other than male pleasure. Normalizing the exposure of the female body was a huge part of the women’s liberation movement and Yamaguchi decided to expose the entire female body through beautiful advertising campaigns rather than sitting idly by while the public adjusted to the movement little by little. It seems as though people today see these women as empowering rather than objectified, as Yamaguchi intended. Now in her eighties, Harumi Yamaguchi has made an indisputable impact on the advertising, artistic, feminist, and fashion communities through the iconic, powerful airbrushed women which are still leaving their mark on new generations.