Deco Japan: Shaping Art and Culture, 1920-1945
Seattle Asian Art Museum
May 10 – Oct. 19, 2014
I meant to review this show when I saw it in May, so we’re taking another quick break from the ongoing series so I can finish this review in a timely fashion.
Jazz. Gin. Short hair and short skirts. The modern girl. The rise of film, and the advent of skyscrapers and air travel. After World War I, the world was changing rapidly. With the machine age came an increased emphasis on speed.
The art world answered with Art Deco, which had a driving energy that found expression in its use of themes from cultures all over the world, wild appropriation of other art forms, and graphic designs with fast lines that could be adapted and used on everything from housewares to posters, and for everything from politics to advertising.
By World War II, Art Deco had left its mark on almost every medium of visual art.
Deco Japan: Shaping Art and Culture, 1920–1945, with nearly 200 works, reveals the widespread and particular impact of Art Deco on Japanese culture. Through a wide range of mediums—sculpture, painting, prints, ceramics, lacquerware, jewelry, textiles, furniture, and graphic ephemera—this exhibition introduces the spectacular craftsmanship and sophisticated designs of Japan’s contribution to the movement.
Shown in our gem-like 1933 Art Deco building, Deco Japan offers you the rare opportunity to experience the full range of Deco artistry in a period setting.
When I think of Art Deco, especially in the context of Japan, I tend to think of the cover of the Songbook for “Song of the Milky Way (銀河の歌)”:
However, Art Deco was much more than graphic design. Although the collection of sculpture, lacquerware, prints, and clothing seems to lack cohesion, Art Deco itself was, according to Kendall Brown in the introduction of the 2012 catalog for the exhibition, was coined in the 1960s to describe a general style across diverse media from the 1920s to the early 1940s (11). Brown also describes the “multidirectional” style that grew out of Art Nouveau and modernism as “ambiguous,” as it was categorized after the fact: the style includes objets d’art as well as craft and design, was handmade and mass-produced, was made for the upper classes and the bourgeoise, and contained abstraction and themes of progress as well as naturalistic beauty (12).
A few themes of the exhibition:
The US wasn’t the only country swept up in the Egypt fever of the 1920s after Tutankhamen’s tomb was opened by Carter and Herbert. The exhibition has several piece of ancient-Egypt inspired sculpture and art on Japanese media such as lacquer. At the same time, Japanese archeologists were excavating tombs in China, and there was a renewed neo-classical interest in Japan’s ancient history (15).
Motifs of industrialization
Flowers and natural scenes, of course, are what most people think of regarding the broad category of kimono and obi; these motifs also have persisted into contemporary kimono, yukata, and obi. However, during this time, images of modernity came into fashion as well: kimono with patterns of playbills or airplanes; obi with sailboats and bridges. Clothing and many other aspects of Japanese aesthetic culture, including cuisine and tea ceremony, are so tied closely into the seasons, and seasonality occupies a place of importance in high culture. The integration of images of industry and popular culture, some of which are not necessarily seasonal, puts an interesting twist of ideas about fashion.
The “modern girl”
The exhibit features a lot of images of women being active: dancing, swimming, drinking, and smoking. Perhaps the biggest visual difference from the “flapper” culture of the West is that the fashion for moga (modern girls) in Japan was the adoption, to some extent ,of Western-style dress, makeup, and bobbed hair. The hybrid element was here as well, with kimono with more contemporary designs (see above). In” The Modern Girl: The Icon of Modernity,” Vera Mackie discusses how urbanity, freedom to travel, and consumerism were associated with the moga (53-57).
Internationalization and cultural appropriation
While Japonisme was booming in Europe with the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists like Van Gogh and Toulouse Lautrec, Anglophilia and Francophilia boomed in Japan. Brown writes that Art Deco was simultaneously a sign of Japan’s internationalism and of Japan’s “uniqueness”–not unlike what we have seen in nihonjinron and Japan as a modern nation since the Taisho era. He continues,
Art deco could provide a model for transnational modernity, whereby the modern was not solely a product of Western culture, and Japanese modernity was no an inauthentic copy of Western modernity… a hybrid, an acknowledgement of the impact of Japanese forms and ideas abroad[,]… a way of simultaneously looking backward and forward, inward and outward.
Of course, again, this national narrative is almost the same a hundred years later. For example, there’s that “Scene of Mt. Fuji with the shinkansen speeding through the foreground” image that is so often used to describe Japan’s position as having a culture wherein the modern and historic coexist. While it’s an apt description, it’s a century old.
Some of the mainstays of Japanese culture are redesigned, such as abstract or naturalistic kirin and shishi. Some animals become more popular as a symbol, such as the flying fish, a nature-motif that inspired airplane design.
Overall, this is a fantastic small exhibition that represents the diversity of what came to be known as Art Deco. The exhibition debuted in New York in 2012, but it fits so the SAAM so well. The museum is housed in an Art-Deco building built in 1931. It’s a fantastic opportunity to see art in its contemporary setting.
With the exception of the photos of the building, the images are from the press release. All works in Deco Japan: Shaping Art & Culture, 1920–1945 courtesy of the Levenson Collection. The above Deco-era source material is borrowed from the exhibition catalogue: Kendall H. Brown, Deco Japan: Shaping Art and Culture, 1920–1945 (Alexandria, Virginia: Art Services International, 2012), 47, 19, 248, 242, 7.