Published: August 30, 2016
WASHINGTON, D.C. — The vivid interpretation of Art Deco style in Japan is revealed in a collection of fine objects, including painting, sculpture, ceramics, lacquer ware and printed ephemera, in “Deco Japan: Shaping Art and Culture, 1920–1945,” making its final tour stop at Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens through January 2. Featuring over 75 examples of craftsmanship and sophisticated design — a distillation of The Levenson Collection that has been touring the country since 2012 — this exhibition brings Japanese Art Deco to Washington for the first time.
The term Art Deco was first used in the 1960s to describe the range of styles that grew out of Paris, especially the International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts, held in 1925. Reflecting the innovation of a new age, images of industrialization, mechanization, transportation, cinema, and radical women’s fashions dominated all fields of art across Europe, the United States, and Asia. Artists and designers in Japan embraced the Western deco movement, combining it with traditional Japanese motifs to create bold and intriguing objects in a variety of media. The presentation of works in Deco Japan traces this chapter in Japanese modernism, signaling simultaneously the country’s allegiance to a unique history and its outward looking cosmopolitanism.
A major theme of Deco Japan is the rise of the moga — or modern girl — an emblem of contemporary chic that signaled social freedom and cultural realignment. In this context, the exhibition brings focus to one of the most transformative eras in the life of Hillwood founder Marjorie Merriweather Post, when she lived her own version of the flapper lifestyle and became a connoisseur of finely crafted decorative objects.
“Marjorie Post was ahead of her time in many ways, throughout her life, and the 1920s and 30s were no exception,” explained Hillwood executive director Kate Markert. “Post was the embodiment of the modern woman, so an exploration of this modern era, especially with its focus on the Japanese moga, and the new way of life, is perfectly suited for Hillwood, the legacy that she left in Washington.” This era was also one in which Post solidified her taste for collecting high-end decorative art objects and in the 1920s she acquired many Art Deco items, including exquisite examples of jewelry and picture frames from Cartier.
More than 75 objects will be presented in Hillwood’s Adirondack building and dacha, situated near the Japanese-style garden, further celebrating the beauty of Japanese culture at Hillwood. Blending Japanese taste and culture with the invention and innovation of a new industrial age, Japanese Art Deco celebrates upbeat modernity, nightlife, advertising, modern cinema and the spectacle of consumer culture.
In the Adirondack building, visually compelling objects, exhibiting the symmetry, geometric forms, sleek shapes and luminous colors of Deco style, illustrate the adaptation of designs and cultures from around the world that was a salient feature of Art Deco. Contemporary urban culture, especially motifs from music, movies and transportation technology, saturated all types of art forms. A man’s under robe with skyscrapers design, circa 1932, illustrates the penchant for using Western places as symbols of modern life. A poster for Vanguard Jazz Literature, 1930, designed to advertise a series of edgy novels, encapsulates the spirt of the time, with its stylized chorus girls, vivid typography, and collage effect.
The next section focuses on the moga — the modern girl. With short hair, bright lips, and Western clothes or kimono, she was a ubiquitous figure during the 1920s and 1930s, appearing almost everywhere, from paintings exhibited in salons to nationwide advertisements. She epitomized the vibrant new culture while engaging in such “modern” activities as smoking, drinking and dancing.
The abstract forms that characterized Art Deco around the world connected in significant ways to Japan’s rich legacy of design, defined by abstraction and economy of line. One progressive artist group, Mukei (Formless), active 1926–1933, fiercely embraced abstraction, with devotees seeking to free their work from conventional designs and utilizing clean geometric lines. A range of works in ceramic, bronze, lacquer, metal, and glass conveys the experimentation with this new style.
Natural motifs were popular in Deco design and plants and animals were frequent subjects in Japanese deco. All types of plants and animals were simplified and turned into geometric patterns. In this section, a standing screen with banana flowers, 1936, shows off flowering and fruiting banana plants in a vivid art deco manner.
Hillwood is at 4155 Linnean Avenue, NW. For more information, www.HillwoodMuseum.org or 202-686-5807.
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