Published: March 27, 2012
Art Deco’s linear symmetry is iconic; its appeal is international. Although it does not immediately conjure an association with Japanese decorative arts, Art Deco’s message of Modernism and style rippled through Japan’s artistic circles just as Tokyo was rebuilding and modernizing in the wake of the 1923 earthquake. It then continued with almost nationalistic fervor until 1943, the year that Japan’s military fortunes changed and the creation of luxury objects came to a halt.
A breakout exhibition, “Deco Japan: Shaping Art and Culture 1920‱945,” is currently on view through June 10 at the Japan Society. The exhibition offers the first survey of this artistic explosion in Japan.
Art Deco makes its first appearance as decorative Modernism in 1925 in Paris at the “Exposition Internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes . ” Deco’s linear symmetry was a departure from the flowing curves of Art Nouveau. It drew inspiration from Egyptian and Aztec forms and showed no mercy in appropriating and incorporating elements of neoclassicism, constructivism, Cubism, Modernism and futurism. Unlike other artistic movements, Art Deco did not seek to make a philosophical or political statement.
It is perhaps for this reason, as Kendall H. Brown, professor of Asian art history at California State University, Long Beach, and curator of the exhibit, states in the catalog, that Art Deco is “virtually absent from orthodox art histories of the Twentieth Century.” It has only recently become the focus of serious study, a phenomenon that began in 2003 when the Victoria and Albert Museum mounted a traveling exhibition that went around the world, including East Asia. Beginning in 2000, the Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum organized two exhibitions. These were followed by the Honolulu Academy of Arts’ “Taisho Chic” exhibition.
Unlike other movements, Deco was transmitted almost immediately through magazines, books, movies and exhibitions. So it comes as no surprise that when this “sticky” movement, as Brown describes it, came along with its multidirectionality, it found fertile ground in a culture that seemed to seek ways to celebrate its prosperity and modern mind set.
Artists and craftsmen were clearly open to new ideas and experiments. The Japanese had embraced Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel. French art and its derivatives †even French artists in the employ of the wealthy or the state †were fashionable. Their influence spread to graphic leaders like Yamana Ayao, whose packaging and advertising branded Shiseido. His reproduction prints from the publication Gazette du Bon Ton were hits with subscribers. Takehisa Yumeji (1884‱934), the father of Japanese graphic design, had produced “Kesho-no aki (Autumn in Makeup)” by adapting a Georges Lepape (1887‱971) print titled “Le Miroir Rouge” that had been published in Les Feuillets d’Art in 1919.
Japanese travelers who experienced Art Deco first-hand in Europe were immediately inspired. Among them was Tsuda Shinobu, the metal casting artist who influenced the progressive Mukei (Formless) craft group. Japan’s Prince Asaka, after viewing the “Exposition Internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes,” commissioned French architect and designer Henri Rapin to build a family palace in Shiroganedai, Minato-ku, Tokyo. It later became the Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum.
In contrast to abstraction, which had limited connections to Japanese themes, the natural motifs of Art Deco offered symbolic associations. They could serve as emblems of the seasons or the zodiac. Fractured and simplified images of the natural world meshed neatly with the Japanese aesthetic. When the cultivation of new plants, such as wheat and wax palm, were encouraged by the government, Art Deco’s lush surfaces were adaptable to the imagery and the messages. Geometric stylization offered dramatic reimagining of traditional forms. Eventually, the freedom to adapt graphic images played well with the political psyche. Birds, which carry wishes for longevity or immortality, took on a special resonance in the prewar decade.
In 1939, the imperial navy named an elite class of aircraft carriers after cranes, launching the carriers Sho Kaku (flying crane) and Zuikaku (auspicious crane). By 1940, when Japan sought to boost its prestige by planning to host the Olympic Games in conjunction with the celebration of the 2,600th anniversary of its founding, the poster designs intended to invite the public to enter competitions had a sublime and historical beauty. When the event was canceled, the only domestic exhibition on the anniversary was marked by the use of Art Deco design as a vehicle to stir national pride.
After the war, when the movement reappeared, some historians viewed it as an expression of the Modernist link of form to function. Others found it a comfortable visual style in a world inclined towards rationality and efficiency.
Today, the pervasiveness of Art Deco in Japan is represented in its elite and ordinary manifestations in “Japan Deco.” Viewers will marvel at objects made for social contexts, such as “exhibition hall art” (kaijo-geijutsu), domestic display and furnishing, clothing and advertising.
The nearly 200 objects in the exhibition are drawn from the Robert and Mary Levenson collection, which had its origins three decades ago. Levenson came to the Japanese arts as a netsuke collector. As his imagination and eye wandered to other areas of the decorative arts, such as woodblock prints, cloisonné and Japanese decorative objects, he began to notice a pattern of decorative Modernism and acquired the best of it at a time when few shared the picture.
Consequently, “Japan Deco” features objects that borrow from other stylistic movements and bend the soft boundaries of Art Deco. The works are included to demonstrate the periphery and, in some cases, sources for the movement.
The exhibition is organized into seven categories: Cultural Appropriation; Formal Manipulation: Abstract Forms; Formal Manipulation: Natural Motifs; Over and Under the Sea; Social Expression: Nationalism; Social Expression: The Floating World Transformed; and The Cultured Home.
Cultural Appropriation allowed Japanese artists and consumers the opportunity to connect visually with other countries at a time when politics and new technologies were shrinking the globe. The city became an outdoor gallery where the work of graphic designers hung in store windows and on walls. For instance, a flower basin with scarab beetle motif by Sato Sueo clearly shows the influence of Egyptmania.
Graphic energy was carried by songbooks, postcards, matchbox labels and textile designs.
The category Formal Manipulations examines the abstract forms and natural motifs that share an awareness of color, pattern and form, with an insistence of function. Textiles in the category recall sources as diverse as Paul Klee and Edo-period children’s books.
Over and Under the Sea links the ocean with a variety of objects, from marine life to the steam ships. While trains and airplanes were important Deco sites and subjects, ocean liners provided the perfect environment for the Deco sensibilities. The dozen Japanese luxury liners launched in the 1930s were all requisitioned by the imperial navy after 1941 and reconfigured as transport ships. All but a couple were sunk, making postcards, photos and other ephemera the only evidence of their impressive interior spaces.
Social Expressions: Nationalism contrasts the patriotic core of Japan with the fashionable and decadent life of the moga , or modern girl. A section of three-dimensional works explore patriotism, while painting, prints and graphic designs represent the moga .
Social Expressions: The Floating World Transformed adapts the idea of ukiyo from the demimonde of the Edo period (1603‱868) to the output of Deco ephemera.
The Cultured Home offers a collection of bourgeois taste as enjoyed by the semi-independent housewife ( shufu ) who controlled its decoration. Goods range from knick-knacks to Bakelite radios and matchbook covers.
The diversity of objects in “Deco Japan,” whether the graphic designs on kimonos and obis, the medals for sports achievements or the sublime examples of hand-blown glass, realigns preconceived notions about Art Deco and its far-flung influence.
The exhibition is accompanied by a 315-page catalog edited by Brown. Essays by Tim Benton, Takanami Machiko, Kitamura Hitomi and Vera Mackie explore the many aspects of Art Deco.
“Deco Japan: Shaping Art and Culture, 1920‱945,” on view through June 10, will travel to the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, Fla., July 14⁓eptember 30, and the Society of the Four Arts, Palm Beach, Fla., November 9⁊anuary 19.
The Japan Society is at 333 East 47th Street. For additional information, 212-832-1155 or www.japansociety.org .
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
Mon - Fri / 8:00 am - 5:01 pm