The little-known phenomenon of Japanese Art Deco is elaborately showcased at the Seattle Art Museum.
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Writing in 1935, the Japanese novelist Jun’ichiro Tanizaki bemoaned the rise of neon lights, glass and tiled surfaces, and Western-style buildings in Japan. The machined sheen of the new Tokyo—which had risen from the ashes of old Edo, destroyed in the cataclysmic earthquake of 1923—seemed to him the direct antithesis of Japanese aesthetics. In his essay In Praise of Shadows, he argued that traditional objets d’art, like black lacquerware flecked with silver or gold, needed to be viewed in low light, almost in darkness, to be properly appreciated. In bright light, he explained, they might appear garish or even vulgar. Tanizaki favored wood and paper over glass and steel, candlelight over electric light, and the Noh play over the movie, but his was a rear-guard view shared by few of his contemporaries. Western aesthetics had come to stay, and not only architects and city planners but artists, artisans, and industrial designers were creating objects in styles strongly influenced by the Art Deco look that was sweeping Europe and America.
A steel box with Cubistic abstract designs and a bas relief of American football players on top, manufactured by the Asahi Shoten company in the ’30s, wasn’t made to be contemplated by candlelight. Under the electric glare it comes to life, an accouterment of the Westernized urban world populated by the modan garu (“modern girl”) in red lipstick and bobbed hair, who packed the cinemas and dance halls of Tokyo and drove a new kind of consumerism that was a taste of things to come. This piece, among some 200 others, is currently on view at the Seattle Art Museum (through October 19) in a fascinating, highly unusual exhibition titled “Deco Japan: Shaping Art and Culture 1920–45.” From mass-produced knickknacks to elegant one-of-a kind works of craftsmanship to posters, prints, and photographs, the show reveals a unique cultural cross-pollination.
The football box could just as easily have been made in the West; so could a dramatic, motion-filled travel poster in the exhibition, lithographed for Japan’s railway system by Satomi Munetsugu in a style very similar to that of the French graphic designer A.M. Cassandre. Another poster, Kirin Stout, the Beer We Drink in Winter, circa 1934–36, by Tada Hokuu, would have been just as successful as an advertisement for a French or a Dutch beer as for Kirin; only the calligraphy marks it as Japanese. The prevalence of deer, antelopes, and big cats in many of the metal sculptures is also derivative of Western Deco figuration. However, most of the pieces in “Deco Japan” give very local takes on Euro-American genres, and in some cases feel almost helplessly Japanese, in spite of the artist’s good-faith attempt to be as Western as possible. Tanizaki needn’t have worried so much about Japanese crafts losing their character.
For example, a pair of crane-motif tabletop ornaments by Nakamura Kenji are distinctly Deco in silver and gilt silver, but instead of living birds they are sculptures of origami birds, perfectly rendered as if the metal were folded instead of cast. A stationery box of lacquered wood with silver and gold inlay by Hayashi Bunshu depicts a winged Pegasus soaring through the clouds, vaulting toward the viewer over what looks like a giant golden setting moon. Inside the box is a depiction of the Milky Way. This imagery, while Western in style rather than Japanese, is so over-the-top and kitschy that it seems to prefigure the comic-book otaku visual culture of today. Other pieces in the show are clear attempts to update traditional Asian forms in Deco style, such as Tsuda Shinobu’s Vase in Gu Form With Geometric Motif, from 1935. Here we have a wine-vessel shape that dates back to China’s archaic bronze age, given some moderne streamlining and protrusions along the side that look like the fins on an airplane.
Another stationery box, by Sato Kansai, is in a traditional Japanese shape and worked in Tanizaki’s beloved black lacquer, along with yellow cinnabar (araishu urushi) and chestnut cinnabar (urumi urushi), but the designs are geometric abstractions that don’t resemble anything in the Japanese repertoire. A small, tabletop screen for use at tea parties, titled Late Autumn, made in 1943 by Nakayama Ken’ichi, uses strips and coils of bronze to depict cattails peacefully swaying in the wind, the whole composition enclosed in a bent-wood frame that is redolent of the woodland world being represented. While very Japanese in its enthusiasm for harmony with nature, the piece is very modern and Western in its boldly simplified forms and forward-moving curves. A lacquered wood footed serving tray with a flying-fish motif by a mysterious artist called Yusei (biographical data yet to be uncovered) is considered by the curators to be “a quintessential example of Japanese art deco” due to its successful fusion of Japanese materials and imagery (the fish connote Japan’s naval mastery of the sea) with an innovative color scheme (rich iridescent green, gray, red, and bright yellow) and modernistic energy.
Popular culture, especially movies and music, looms large in this exhibition. One whimsical piece that could only have been created in Japan during this era is a man’s under-kimono from the early 1930s, made of brown silk, printed all over with actual movie poster designs. Another such kimono is silvery colored and printed with skyscrapers including the Empire State Building with planes buzzing over it and images of postage stamps commemorating the Graf Zeppelin. One can only imagine the effect the self-confident man wearing this would have had gliding down a Tokyo street!
Of course, the modan garu gets plenty of play in this show, with ukiyo-e that are classic in technique but totally 1920s–30s in style and subject. Kobayakawa Kiyoshi’s print Tipsy (Horoyoi), from 1930, shows a frame-filling flapper with a bobbed hairdo and spit curls, resting her head in her hands and a cigarette between her fingers, a cocktail on the table in front of her. The picture is in line with the traditional ukiyo-e preoccupation with the “floating world” of nightlife, yet this girl’s role is unlike any of those played by women in the old prints. Her red lipsticked mouth is erotic in a way very different from that of the geisha or courtesan—who, as Tanizaki points out, would have used dark, iridescent green lipstick, if she used any at all, to conceal her lips and thereby accentuate the artificial whiteness of her face. In this print, the theme of female intoxication was daring for the time and also sociologically precise. Another fabulous print by the same artist shows a foreign dancer, probably Brazilian, bending backwards in a dramatic posture of modern choreography, her red shoes and light blue dress placed against a pure black background. More overtly erotic—and also Surrealistic—is the cover of a 1930 songbook for something called “Song of the Era of Erotic Feelings” (one would really like to know what this sounded like) featuring disembodied legs photomontaged in a circle over a pink-and-pale-green geometric background.
This exhibition was organized in an innovative fashion by Art Services International, a private nonprofit organization in Alexandria, Va., that creates and packages traveling shows to make them available to museums. Compiled from the collection of Robert and Mary Levenson, it has previously been seen at the Japan Society in New York, the Ringling Museum in Sarasota, Fla., and the Albuquerque Museum of Art, among others, and after its run in Seattle will travel to the Dayton Art Museum and the Museum of Art at Brigham Young University. After that, it is open to other venues through June 2016, according to ASI.
Wherever they may see it, Deco-savvy visitors to the show may start to surmise something interesting after taking in a critical mass of these objects: One major reason that the Deco aesthetic sat so well with Japanese artists, viewers, and consumers was not because it was alien but because it was at least partially familiar. The French designers who launched Deco in the mid-’20s, such as René Lalique, were profoundly influenced by a design trend that took off in France starting in the 1870s—Japonisme.