Cosmopolitan Contradictions

A new exhibition explores Japan’s little-known Art Deco period.

Deco Japan: Shaping Art and Culture, 1920–1945
Through June 10
Japan Society

New York City

The objects in the exhibition Deco Japan: Shaping Art and Culture, 1920–1945 may come as a rude shock to anyone whose conception of Japanese art and design is limited to cherry blossoms and Zen gardens. Skyscrapers climb up a silk kimono, girls with bobbed hair advertise cigarettes on matchboxes, and lacquered vases covered in bold geometric patterns look like they hail from Paris instead of Tokyo. Even though there are plenty of traditional motifs on display—fans, phoenixes, bulls, and mandarin ducks—they are rendered in unmistakable Art Deco style.

The interwar years were a complex period for Japanese culture. After World War I, the country took its place among developed nations, which set off a yearning for the cosmopolitan culture of the West. At the same time, as Japan acquired colonies in Taiwan, Korea, and coastal China, a fierce national pride was on the rise. “Japan in the 1920s and ’30s was moving simultaneously toward an international, urban hedonism and toward nativism and nationalism,” says the art historian Kendall H. Brown, who curated the exhibition. “It is remarkable that Art Deco in Japan can serve both of those functions.”

The versatile style proved especially well suited to a changing society. Geometric forms, like the speeding lines on a poster for the Japanese railways, advanced the notion of an industrial society, while Art Deco’s reliance on natural shapes provided an easy transition for old Japanese symbols. Craft techniques received a shot in the arm—the dramatic color gradients on one vase are only possible thanks to a lacquering method called bokashi. Two sections in the exhibition address the changing status of Japanese women; one revisits “the woman as fashion plate and arbiter of cultural taste,” Brown says, and the other looks at the woman as the “curator” of the home, “creating her own place that navigates between old ideas of domesticity and Western ideas of domestic space.”

Many of the objects bear disquieting marks of Japan’s imperial ambitions. “You can read the inscriptions in Japanese, for instance, which talk about the coronation of the emperor,” says Robert Levenson, whose vast collection served as the primary source for the exhibition. The difficult history of these pieces might explain why, until recently, historians and collectors largely overlooked them. On view at New York City’s Japan Society until June 10—after which Art Services International will send it to the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida—Deco Japan represents a step toward correcting that oversight. “When I first started collecting these pieces, I had heard that very little is known about the time period,” Levenson says. “Another way to put that is that there is a lot to learn.”

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