Japan Society offers a window into how the Art Deco movement came to and radiated out from Japan

'Literary Song, The Trouble with Bright Eyes,' 1929 (Courtesy Japan Society)
Tweet Share on Facebook Share on Tumblr Print

Japan might not be the first place that comes to mind when you think of Art Deco, but Ezra Pound’s 1934 edict to “make it new” resonated just as deeply there as it did in cultural capitals like Paris, New York City, Miami, and Hollywood—all places where Eastern culture and design served as a profound inspiration for the era. 

Japanese woodcuts and haiku proved a powerful artistic catalyst for Pound himself as he set out to revise modern verse in what would become known as the Imagist movement. The allusive style known as Japonisme had already exerted significant influence on Impressionism and Art Nouveau around the turn of the 20th century in the West, and continued to make an impression in Western art and design well into the 1930s and 1940s as the Art Deco movement took hold.  

Japan had a vibrant and robust Art Deco scene, and the influence of the style radiated out from artistic circles through Japanese culture from the '20s through the '40s, just as it did in the West, where it swiftly took hold after the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes which took place in 1925 in Paris.   

A new exhibition at the Japan Society, Deco Japan: Shaping Art and Culture, 1920-1945, (on view now through June 10; a trailer can be seen here) offers a peek into the ephemera and artifacts of the golden age of Art Deco in Japan, a time during which the style dominated both popular and high-cultural aesthetics. The exhibition is the first of its kind in America. It includes a broad survey of some 200 objects (from the worlds of both high- and mass-culture) from the period, including vases, large-scale paintings, advertisements, sheet music, cigarette packages, domestic tchotchkes, metalwork, furniture, sports medallions, lacquer boxes, posters, ceramics, and combs and hairpins. 

MORE ON CAPITAL

ADVERTISEMENT

The objects subvert temporality, operating within traditional forms without representing any specific past, instead drawing on different aspects of different eras and cultures and mixing them up into something new. Cultures both ancient and modern, exotic and familiar are visible, from Ancient China and—especially after the discovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1922 that generated the so-called “Nile-Style” craze—Egypt, to the glamour and decadence of contemporary Hollywood. And, just as elsewhere during the period, the Japanese reinterpreted themes from a broad range of cultural and artistic movements such as Bauhaus, Constructivism, Futurism, and Cubism, not to mention Japan’s own rich design heritage, of which abstraction and geometric schematizing had long been central components. 

Japanese Deco designers also drew on staples of progressive European and American high and popular art, incorporating stylized versions of gears and clocks that bring to mind Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times.

The exhibit includes several traditional silk jackets embroidered with images of cityscapes with skyscrapers or movie posters, musical scores (as pictured at left) and film scripts, as well as obis depicting newly-introduced Western competitive sports like golf, horse racing, and Olympic swimming, which in the context was actually rather racy subject-matter. Still the translation of motifs culled from foreign cultures present and past into the Deco idiom was hardly the sort of jarring outsiderist exercise it might appear. In fact, the Deco use of foreign imagery and design elements was a virtually seamless process given existing practices of both abstraction and cultural appropriation at work in the decorative arts at the time in Japan. Many traditional designs already possessed a sort of visual affinity with the Art Deco aesthetic; the synthesis of conventional design elements with contemporary, pared-down forms appealed to the culture’s collective knowledge of traditional motifs and symbols while feeding their desire for modern consumer products that reflected a keen sense of cosmopolitanism perfectly combining the old with the ultramodern. 

Animal subjects from Japan’s religious art tradition, such as the deer and the fox, as well as more exotic fauna such as the polar bear, the leopard, and even a stylized version of the mythical Pegasus were widely popular in the Deco idiom, reduced to their essence, transformed into sleek, streamlined objects combining the aesthetic with the functional for domestic use. Morimura Torizo’s bronze Hare, an animal traditionally symbolizing speed, was reimagined with a sleek form approximating the streamlined shapes of a modern airplane or train. Similarly, the crane, a common symbol in Japanese design linked to longevity, immortality, and loyalty reappears in a modern, aerodynamic form representing military prowess. When they were christened in the late '30s, the two most prominent Imperial Navy aircraft carriers were dubbed Shōkaku (“flying crane”) and Zuikaku (“fortunate crane”).  

Art Deco is generally classified as a purely aesthetic and decorative movement, without any political or philosophical agenda, but one of the most intriguing aspects of this particular take on the genre is the unmistakable nationalistic undercurrent in the movement's deployment in Japan. The Communist Party was in its youth in the East, and Art Deco proved itself to be a powerful tool of propaganda, expressing Japan’s global outlook, anticommunist stance, and imperial ambition. For instance, motifs of the rising sun, borrowed from traditional Mesoamerican designs, readily lent themselves to nationalist mythologies and sentiments, eventually also appearing on the war flags of both the Imperial Navy and the Imperial Army. 

Yet, the show’s most striking pieces remain those which examine the negotiation between tradition and innovation. Shifting perspectives on the role of men and women in modern society, liberalization, revolution, and reaction are all themes heavily underlined in the exhibit. It is also exciting to discern global analogies such as that represented by the much celebrated and satirized female archetype known as Modaan gaaru, or Moga, for short, something of a parallel to the West's flappers: cropping her hair, smoking, boozing, flirting, amassing exotic art and clothing, listening to jazz and dancing with abandon until dawn. Likewise, the modern bourgeois Bunka Jukatu, or “culture house,” which might be seen as the crucible of the age, effectively incorporated traditional Japanese tatami-matted rooms with Western parlors and furniture, much in the way that the reverse happened on the other side of the world.  

And the interplay between East and West renditions of Art Deco style are fascinating as a feedback loop. Creating a visual vocabulary in the Deco motif was both liberating and tradition-affirming for modern Japan; and in many ways, in recreating its own traditions in a modern light, the exhibit shows Japan both modernizing and orientalizing itself as a nation, even as Western Deco design posited an identification between orientalism (as a function of cosmopolitanism) and modernity.

'Deco Japan: Shaping Art and Culture, 1920-1945,' is on view at the Japan Society now through June 10