While other museums continue to show the same standard stuff – hanging scrolls and folding screens by the Kanô school and Rinpa artists, with themes like “the four seasons” *yawn* – Japan Society amazes with another breakthrough exhibit. Any history book will tell you that in the Taishô (1912-1926) to early Shôwa periods (1926-1930s), Japan embraced many of the same fashions and trends that were popular at the same time in the West. Clubs & cafés. Jazz and cinemas. Flapper dresses and short bob hairdos. But what this Art Deco Japan looked like is not usually so clearly or thoroughly displayed. The exhibition Deco Japan: Shaping Art and Culture, 1920-1945 showing at New York’s Japan Society until June 10 fills in this lacuna in Japanese art history, featuring many wonderful sorts of objects I’d never seen before, or perhaps even suspected existed.
We see kimono with designs featuring very modern/Western subjects, including skyscrapers and movie cameras; metalwork objects, including a small shakudô and shibuichi box with an extremely Art Deco design of a city fountain. The exhibit contains many decorative objects, from lacquerware and ceramics to metalwork objects.
But perhaps the most beautiful and impressive objects in the exhibit are the large-scale Nihonga paintings, including one of two young women on a sailboat, which I saw at the MFA’s “Shôwa Sophistication” exhibit a few years ago.
Junpû (順風) by Miki Suizan (三木翠山), 1933. Ink, colors, and mica on silk, mounted as a panel. 95 1/8 x 75 3/8 in. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Photo taken myself, 25 April 2009. Click here for a cleaner image at the official MFA website.
A pair of paintings by Enomoto Chikatoshi feature a woman skiing. Both employ squares of silver – not cut foil, but painted on in a metallic pigment – to simulate the snowy air. One, entitled Sekihô (“Snow Mountain”), is a framed panel behind glass, and visitors are allowed to walk right up to it. I appreciate, of course, the need to protect paintings by forcing visitors to stand behind the velvet rope, a few feet away from the object, but when it is possible to get up close, one can get a much greater appreciation of the textures and techniques used in the painting. The texture of the silk itself, as well as the way the colors are blended so expertly, so smoothly, creating solid areas of color and hiding the brushstrokes completely.
A pair of bronze fox sculptures/figurines by Tsuda Shinobu (1875-1946) are beautifully elegant, smooth and graceful. They seem almost soft, as if they were real, and living. Tsuda’s Lion is also quite impressive, as is a slightly more minimalist polar bear by Yamamoto Junnin. A bull by Hiramatsu Koshun is even more minimalist, in a good way. Normally, I’m not particularly interested in sculpture, especially modern, bronze sculpture, but these are surprisingly captivating.
It’s interesting to see how the Japanese, even as they adopt Western motifs, and new types of objects as needed for modern/Western-style lifestyles, continue to make traditional objects such as lacquerware boxes with sprinkled gold decoration, combining the old and the new (or the traditional and the Western/modern) in a single object.
In the third room of the gallery, we are finally formally introduced to the concept of the moga (モガ), or “modern girl,” the most representative icons of the style of the era. They have long dresses, high heels, curled hair, and long pearl necklaces unlike anything the kimono-wearing women of several decades prior had ever seen. The section includes a beautiful triptych of panel paintings by Enomoto, depicting scenes from the Ballroom Florida in golden fan shapes against a white, gold flecked background. The Ballroom Florida was, apparently, a rather high-profile nightclub of the time; Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks are known to have spent time there on at least one occasion. A 1935 photograph of a dancer looking at herself in the mirror brings to life the abstract idea of the Ballroom Florida, hammering home the idea that this was in fact a real place of that time.
While the pieces in the first room have certainly gotten me interested in the likes of Miki Suizan and Enomoto Chikatoshi, it was fun to see some more familiar names in this third room, which featured works by Itô Shinsui and Nakamura Daizaburô.
The exhibition ends with something of a reproduction of a living room of the time, furnished in a Western style, with a framed painting on the wall of a kimono-clad woman before a Christmas tree – an even stronger symbol of the dramatic cultural shifts that had taken root by that time.
I do wish that the exhibit had provided some more information on each label, fleshing out our understanding of the people and places of this time; as is, it was my understandings of the history and cultural trends of the time that I brought in with me that made the exhibit make sense, and that made it exciting. I’m sure that for someone more familiar with the Art Deco movement as it existed in the West, the exhibit would have meant a lot, too. But, while I do genuinely feel bad to be critical, I do think that the exhibit would not have provided enough information, enough background to really inform, really fill in the more uninitiated visitor. …
Still, the works are gorgeous, and, again, it’s a colorful, wonderful cultural period of Japanese history that we normally see very little of in museums, and in classes. If you have the chance, I definitely recommend heading over, checking it out, and taking your time. Some of these pieces, if you really slow down, and take time to focus in on one object, you can really get so much more out of the experience.
Japan Society, 333 East 47th St, NYC. Exhibit ends Sunday June 10.
EDIT: Salon.com has a brief interview with guest curator Kendall Brown, explaining in more depth the ideas behind the show, and a slide show with more images. Sadly, a lot of the pieces that caught my eye and which I mention in this post are not in the slide show, but, other very attractive pieces are, giving a good sense of the sorts of things in the exhibition.