Japan’s Art Deco showcasing in Seattle

May 08, 2014, 7:13 AM EDT
Pair of Ornaments of Origami Cranes, ca. 1930s, Nakamura Kenji, Japanese, 1895-1970, silver and gilt.
(Courtesy of The Levenson Collection)

It is often said that Japanese artists and creators voraciously consume and import foreign cultural formats that are then given a unique and original Japanese twist—whether in fashion, modern architecture, art, or cuisine. The historical origins of this cultural customization or tweaking run deep, with one particularly stellar example unfolding mostly in the interwar period, or what is known as the Taisho era in Japan—Art Deco.
Although primarily known as a Western movement that took flight in Europe and America, Art Deco also traveled halfway around the world during the 1920s and 30s, taking root in Japan, where it found itself subject to unique reinterpretations.
“Deco Japan: Shaping Art and Culture, 1920-1945,” which opens May 10 and runs until October 19 at the Seattle Art Museum, is the first exhibition outside Japan to showcase Japanese Art Deco from this era, presenting some 200 pieces from the collection of the retired Florida-based anesthesiologist Robert Levenson and his wife Mary.
Xiaojin Wu, the museum’s associate curator for Japanese and Korean art, suggests that Paris was a vital node of inspiration as far as Japanese Art Deco was concerned. Japanese artists who lived in Europe, and France in particular, played a pivotal role in introducing French Art Deco to Japan. “Among them, Tsuda Shinobu (1875–1946), a professor and metal casting artist, was probably the most important one, as he was in Paris at the time of the 1925 World Exposition,” Wu says.
Although Paris had been a mecca of artistic innovation for aspiring Japanese artists since the late 19th Century, Wu points out that the speed and efficiency at which Art Deco trends traveled to Japan was something rather unprecedented. “Unlike Western art that had been previously introduced to Japan, however, there was no time lag in the case of Art Deco. As images and information became available in France, they were transmitted quickly to Japan through magazines, books, films, and Japanese government-sponsored exhibitions. Art Deco penetrated so many aspects of life in Japan—various facets of Western culture including jazz, film, ballroom dancing, smoking cigarettes, drinking cocktails, and so on, became very quickly embraced by the Japanese,” he notes.
Another fascinating aspect of this artistic exchange that the exhibition promises to highlight is a certain process of reverse cultural importation—the “original” French Art Deco, as it turns out, had already previously been influenced by Japanese art and design several decades earlier during the Japonisme craze. According to Wu, stylized natural forms and geometric patterns had been in widespread use as graphic languages in Japan for centuries before the Art Deco era. When the vogue for Japonisme descended upon Europe, the Japanese borrowed once again from the Art Deco that had itself been inspired by Japanese motifs, styles, and techniques during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Finally when the 1920s and 30s rolled around, Japanese artists reclaimed Art Deco once again, further tweaked it, and transformed it into Japanese Art Deco.
However, what really enriched Japanese Art Deco as a bona fide movement that stood distinct from the European and American versions that preceded it was the uniquely complex, and often explosive mix of social and cultural conditions facing Japan at the time. The interwar period, as Wu reminds us, was a time of turbulent social and political change in Japan. Urban infrastructure in Tokyo also improved by leaps and bounds—regular radio broadcasting started in 1925, the subway service commenced in 1927, and commercial air service started plying various international routes from Haneda in 1931. By 1932, Tokyo was the second largest city in the world, with a population of over 5 million, and many of the pieces in this exhibition are a kind of concrete testament to the spectacular flowering of urban Japanese consumer culture centered in Tokyo.
Just like the French and other European source cultures that inspired its first iterations, Japanese Art Deco became a kind of shorthand visual language that signaled the advent of an urban life of constant diversion, wit, and panache. The interwar period witnessed a peak in terms of how the Japanese became avid consumers of cinema, recorded music, and other forms of Western culture. One subculture that readily adopted the styles of Art Deco, for instance, was the westernized “modern girl,” or moga in Japanese (a large section of the exhibition is devoted to moga, showing aspects of their modern urban lives).
The heady 20s and 30s weren’t just a cosmopolitan parade of stylized fashion, architecture, and art, however. Some of the more tacit and even insidious associations that lurk within Japanese Art Deco relics from the time have their roots in the rise of nationalism and militarism in Japan.
Wu points out that Japanese Art Deco motifs were often also co-opted to serve as symbolic icons for the Emperor and the state—the image of the rising sun was a reference to the national flag, for instance, while dragons and phoenixes alluded to the power of mythical creatures, and by extension the emperor’s divine rule.
It is a glimpse of the history of Art Deco in Japan, and the spectrum of insights it contains into nations and cultures the world over.
-- Darryl Wee