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Deco Japan is a rambunctious assemblage of objects from the late 1920s and 1930s that evokes the excitement and instability of an era in which urbanization, international communication, global travel, mass-market consumerism, and the expansion of imperial ambitions were transforming the everyday lives and imaginations of millions, while spurring artists and designers in particular to rethink their art in relation to the new world that was taking shape around them. Curated and with an accompanying catalogue edited by Kendall H. Brown, the traveling exhibition had its longest run in Seattle, invited by the Seattle Asian Art Museum’s new curator of Japanese and Korean Art, Xiaojin Wu. The city welcomed it warmly, with rave reviews and strong attendance. It had perfect accommodation in the Seattle Asian Art Museum, itself an Art Deco masterpiece completed in 1933. The facade and exquisitely adorned entryway served as the first welcoming tastes of the exhibition.
Composed of objects from Robert and Mary Levenson’s collection, the show is predicated upon that singular collection’s emphasis on Deco sensibility as it runs through all manner of material, from vases and porcelain produced by artists recognized as national treasures to anonymous matchbox covers and tableware. If Deco long confounded the purist paradigms of modernist art criticism, the Levenson’s collection revels unapologetically in the very promiscuity of the aesthetic, displaying how deeply it infiltrated the imaginations of everyone from advertisers to nihonga artists. In this, the collection captures and reproduces something of the triumphant hybridity and plastic power of modern art and design at that moment in history. Aided by the extremely informative catalogue, the collection will doubtless continue to provoke and inform well after this initial tour has finished.
The exhibition is divided into five sections: Cultural Appropriations, Formal Manipulations (further divided into Abstract Forms and Natural Motifs), Over and Under the Sea, Social Expressions (divided into Nationalism and the Floating World Transformed), and The Cultured Home. The divisions are provisional and enabling, serving to highlight salient patterns within the collection that can be readily seen throughout. The vast majority of objects could easily have been included in two or more of the groupings, and one of the great pleasures of exploring the exhibition is in finding how numerous trajectories traverse each of the objects, something the interlinked galleries of the museum aided. The visitor could create countless lateral connections and reticulations wherein the intertextuality of the whole appeared with concrete clarity in some of the smallest details.
One of the masterpieces of the collection, a round metal box that was awarded a special prize (tokusen) at the 1930 Imperial Salon (Teiten), features a Chinese lion design with gold and silver gilding. With bulging eyes and bulbous musculature, the motif was apparently inspired by a Han-era design, while the controlled linear abstraction of the mane and tail equally evoke representations of hair, grain, and water in European Deco. The sharp, almost industrial edges of the container itself, emphasized by unadorned square lips that run around top and bottom of both container and lid, make the question of whether the work is traditional or modern, Asian or European difficult to answer.
An equally striking piece is a lacquered stationery box whose cover features a Pegasus cast in shining silver, emerging with spread wings from behind silver-lacquered clouds, parted to show the Asian continent mapped out in gold on the globe below it. Each of the techniques has a long history in lacquer-making, and some of the motifs (such as oblong clouds and sprinklings of gold lacquer) also evoke traditional modes of representation. But all have been redeployed under the aegis of the Pegasus, a familiar if not ubiquitous symbol of Japanese empire. Made in 1937, the aesthetic force of the work takes on a sinister aspect in relation to the imperial power it invokes.
Another vase whose squat, angular design appears at first to be an exotic appropriation (a number of objects demonstrate that Deco’s Egyptomania was global) turns out to be modeled on the shape of an abacus bead. Repeated lathed rings around the top, bottom, and middle evoke that inspiration while also sustaining conversation with the constructivist geometric patterning of the frieze at the piece’s base.
Questions of origin and lineage are further complicated by the fact that Japanese artists and designers were well aware of how European fine art and design had copied elements of Japanese arts in the late nineteenth century in developing techniques of abstraction, a point made clearly in the catalogue essay by Takanami Machiko. The exhibition, and many individual objects, beautifully demonstrate the globalizing imagination and experiment from which they emerged, fashioned in a constitutively complex tangle of unevenly nationalized traditions at a moment when those traditions themselves were in a state of tremendous flux and permeability.
If fast-evolving circuits of intercultural appropriation were one driver of innovation and experiment, other sources were the changing relationship between art and traditional crafts, as well as new modes of production, new markets, new ideas about the public, and new views on the role of art and the artist within it. For a number of years before the arrival of Deco, progressive craftspeople had been pushing ahead with an agenda of modernization, arguing for producers to be recognized as individuals and to have a place at the large salons alongside other artists, while at the same time concerned that innovations in design be brought to bear on the mass production of furniture, buildings, and clothes.
Constructivism appears in a few pieces made by members of the progressive crafts group Mukei (Formless); two are vessels for ikebana flower arrangement, one an ashtray/ash-bucket set. Another—presumably mass-produced piece by the Kōransha Company—is a brightly colored, geometric sake cup washing basin. Though performing a domestic display function and serving to mediate interactions with guests, each of these pieces is thoroughly vernacular. One can imagine items like them appearing in new middle-class households and offices all over the country. And that imagination is fueled by a rich variety of such goods on display: clocks, smoking sets, hair pins, obi clasps, pens, standing lights, glasses, cups, postcards, matchboxes, and, of course, kimono.
Each of these items suggests miniature collections within the larger collection. One such mini-collection is that of songbook covers. Song books were one of the most important mass media for music before the emergence of widespread access to records or radio, and their covers are particularly energetic in their use of brightly colored and sharp-edged patterns, many of which draw upon jazz as a source of inspiration. Bobbed hair and lipstick are invoked as graphic statements. Photomontage appears in many of them, hinting at the ways that modernism may not be as divorced from this vernacular milieu as is sometimes supposed.
Although no single artist appears in the exhibition more than a handful of times, the work of Kobayakawa Kiyoshi and Enomoto Chikatoshi demonstrates how academically trained artists (in nihonga, usually considered a conservative medium) worked across media and milieu. Kobayakawa’s Staircase (Kaidan) (1935) advances the established bijinga genre with striking coloration as well as a possible reference to Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase (1912). A woodblock print of a woman smoking a cigarette and drinking a cocktail comes from a series of prints with the title Styles of Contemporary Make-up (1930). Such a series harkens back to ukiyo-e cataloguing of beauties of the floating world while also being in step with contemporary urban ethnography (associated most strongly with Watsuji Tetsurō’s “modernology”), a movement concerned with capturing the fast-changing forms of a specifically modern and market-inflected ephemerality.
Enomoto’s large, fan-shaped nihonga works pay homage to the modern interior and taxi-dancers of the renowned night club Florida (which appears in a number of guises throughout the exhibition), while a woodblock illustration for a popular women’s magazine, though greatly simplified, portrays a similar image of the modern women as at once alluring and forbidding. Artists moved among media and between commercial projects and works for official exhibition, just as modern themes—such as the modern girl, outdoor leisure, and the nightlife—infiltrated all manner of work from poster, to kimono, to large-scale works in ink and silver leaf.
The exhibition may well challenge some visitors’ tastes at certain points. This is not a collection of masterpieces (though there are many of those as well). Its success as a collection is in inviting us to share both in the appreciation of singular accomplishments and in the energy and intoxication of a rapidly changing moment in history. At times this broader interest in the vitality of that moment seems to take precedence over Deco per se. A number of pieces seem to serve a more documentary function, especially the obi and kimono, whose incorporation of horse races and cigarette packs are certainly surprising evidence of the allure of commercial leisure, but which sometimes have little design relation to Deco.
Along these lines, and to open a question related to Deco more generally, one wonders if the declarative mode of so many of the objects (be it in the register of celebration, seduction, or indulgence) might be generally antagonistic to reflection and attention to difference. While the intertextuality of the objects is a source of wonder, that texture nonetheless effects its own monotony, hiding as much as it reveals, especially in the appearance of women and in the non-appearance of social conflict (particularly class conflict). The catalogue does an excellent job of situating the objects more broadly and encouraging critical perspectives, but for all the exhibition’s depth, energy, and wonder one nonetheless leaves with a sense of the brittleness of its mien, an awareness of its echoing quality, as of a party viewed from the outside.
Assistant Professor, Department of Asian Languages and Literature, University of Washington
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