Art Deco is one of the more widely recognized art movements of the 20th century. A response to the curvy, floral “scented” and wildly popular Art Nouveau movement, Art Deco, originating in France, straightened the lines and replaced the flowers with decidedly symmetrical angles. Touching the worlds of design, decorative arts and architecture, Art Deco brought the arts into the modern world. Until recently, the movement was thought to have been popular primarily in Europe, Russia and the United States. In actuality, Japan fully embraced the movement, adopting the structures of Art Deco while adding some Japanese definition.
In 2012, Robert and Mary Levenson lent their collection, the world’s largest, to the Gallery at Japan Society in New York for an exhibit entitled, Deco Japan: Shaping Art and Culture, 1920-1945. The 200 piece collection is now being exhibited at the Seattle Asian Art Museum. Running through October 19, the exhibit entitled, Deco Japan, includes art prints, ceramics, furniture pieces and jewelry. The private collection is a culmination of a decades-long love and appreciation for the way in which the Japanese embraced and enhanced the Art Deco movement.
Kendall Brown is the traveling exhibit’s curator. The professor of Asian art history at California State University, in Long Beach, also edited the catalog. For the New York Show, he worked alongside the Director of Japan Society Gallery, Joe Earle. Explaining the reasons the people of Japan took to Art Deco in such an ardent way, Earle said that Tokyo had experienced an earthquake in 1923 (Yokohama was also affected.) They were in the midst of rebuilding and modernizing their cities. There was an overall desire to tuck tradition away in order to make room for a more modern way of life.
Brown and Earle decided that rather than grouping the pieces by medium, they would create juxtapositions. As Brown stated it, these arrangements would better examine the “appropriations, formal strategies and social context” of the Art Deco movement in Japan.
The presence of the movement in Japan heralded an acceptance of the Western world. The abstract, the modern and the machine were all incorporated into the Japanese version of Art Deco. However, there are also hints to the traditions that the nation will always proudly display. Art Deco was applied to their lacquerware, partition screens, kimonos and even done in cloisonne. The phoenix, dragon and crane motifs are often included.
In what will likely be the most popular section of the exhibit, the Modern Girl, or moga, is expressed through ceramic figurines, paintings, posters, clocks, hair pins and even bookends. Typified by their bobbed hair, with the Louise Brooks bangs, and shocking red lipstick, the moga was the Japanese equivalent of the flapper. As the main consumer of Art Deco, it could easily be said that the moga was responsible for the movement’s huge popularity in Japan.
Brown explained that the Japanese woman, starting in the early 20th century, entered the workforce en masse. They were employed as office clerks, shop assistants and typists. The moga smoked cigarettes, listened to jazz music and frequented the dance halls. They had the desire, and now the economic voice, to help fuel the era with their vitality and love for fashion, art and housewares; all tinged with a decidedly Art Deco flavor.
In a final ironic piece of fortunate serendipity, the Seattle Asian Art Museum is housed in an Art Deco building from 1933. The Art Deco movement in Japan was both a modernization and an homage to tradition. While embracing Western culture, pride in Japanese tradition was maintained and incorporated; a pairing of perfection.
by Stacy Lamy