Seattle’s Asian Art Museum presents Deco Japan: Shaping Art and Culture, 1920-1945 running from May 10 through October 19, 2014 in the museum’s 1933 Art Deco Tateuchi galleries. Drawn from the Levenson collection, the nearly 200 works include painting, prints, ceramics, lacquerware, sculpture, woodblock prints, graphic ephemera and more highlight the refined design and careful artisanship of a remarkable period in art history – from fine art objects to mass-produced goods.
The Deco Japan exhibit exposes the extensive impact of Art Deco on Japanese culture and their role in the movement. It artfully expresses the complicated social and cultural friction in Japan during the Taisho and early Showa periods through dramatically designed examples of art.
In general, the term “Art Deco,” was devised in the 1960s, to underscore a style and sensibilities that grew out of the Exposition Internationale de Artes Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes held in Paris in 1925 and continued to the “Depression-ridden 1930s.” After World War I, the world was rapidly changing. The machine age brought an emphasis on speed. The art world answered with Art Deco, a movement with a driving energy. Modernism was forming a foothold in the realm of fine art, and Art Deco emerged as a cultural as well as artistic movement that permeated all design forms, from fashion and decorative arts to cinema across the globe.
Universally, it was the style of the flapper girl, the luxury ocean liner and skyscrapers. The movement relied on tradition and still concurrently commemorated the industrialized modern world. Often profoundly nationalistic, it spanned the globe, from New York to Japan. According to the Victoria and Albert museum, the Deco movement “gave free reign to the imagination and celebrated the fantasies, fears and desires of people all over the world.”
Japanese’s movement differed from European and American Art Deco. Kendall Brown, professor of Asian art history at California State University in Long Beach stated that in Japanese Art Deco, “there’s greater complexity.” While Art Deco’s modernized approach to form and adopt “newness” was a distinct break with the past, time-honored artisanship and motifs endured in Japan.
The Deco Japan period coincided with the Japanese invasions of Manchuria, French Indochina and China, so there was a streak of militarism incorporated in the designs but with contradictions of gaiety. One approach to the joie de vivre of the era was expressed through the modern girl or moga. She was a symbol of contemporary urban elegance that briefly flourished. The moga was an inspiration for art and a target for consumer of fashionable goods. Her image reappears in ephemera such as prints and song sheets, drinking, smoking and dancing, and commonly scandalizing Japan’s traditionalists.
While living national treasures such as Japanese sculptors, Takamura Toyochika and Sasaki Shodo are exemplified in the Deco exhibit, so are ready-made items, such as a “constructivist-inspired sake washing bowl,” designed for the homes of Japan’s evolving middle class.
Divided into five sections, the Deco Japan works are organized thematically to focus on the formal, cultural and social implications of Japanese Deco, from “Cultural Appropriations” with Euro-American modernity to “The Cultured Home” that encapsulates Deco’s impact in architecture and public spaces, in addition to the movement’s inspiration on modern home life through household items and furnishings.
As the first traveling exhibit outside of Tokyo dedicated to Japanese Art Deco, the show underscores the militarism during that period. However, it also demonstrates that Japanese artists and consumers fostered their own adaptation of Art Deco style and design.
By: Dawn Levesque