Japan’s Art Deco at Japan Society Gallery

Japanese art prior to World War II hasn’t been a major topic of discussion. In fact, even Joe Earle, Director of Japan Society Gallery, admits that until recently he viewed Japanese art as ending around 1910 with Japanese prints. “And the next thing that happens is Takashi Murakami,” Earle says, speaking of the popular contemporary artist.

Art Deco, Japanese art, Japan Society, NYC

Dr. Kendall Brown, curator of Deco Japan

That notion will soon change for anyone interested in Japanese art with Japan Society’s latest exhibit, Deco Japan: Shaping Japanese Art and Culture, 1920-1945, which opened on March 16 and runs through June 10. From government-commissioned works to sophisticated paintings to the simplest household ephemera, Deco Japan explores a period of Japanese art that took hybrid forms and blended modernity with tradition. Curated by Dr. Kendall Brown, professor of Asian Art History at California State University at Long Beach, Deco Japan “ . . . opens a new window on a phase of Japanese art which most of us really don’t know anything about,” Earle said at a press preview before the opening of the exhibit.

An expert in mid-20th century Japanese art, Dr. Brown also curated the nationally touring exhibit Taisho Chic: Japanese Modernity, Nostalgia and Deco and worked with collectors Bob and Mary Levenson to create a narrative show that “embraces modernity but reflects the roots of Western civilization . . . balanced with East Asian nuances,” says Dr. Brown.

Art Deco, Japanese art, Japan Society, NYC

Japan Society's latest gallery exhibit

The first thing you’ll notice about Deco Japan is how eclectic the collection is. Prints, kimono and obi, songbooks, matchbook covers, bronze sculptures, and everyday household objects reflect a variety of subjects, including nature, militarism, nationalism, and the trends of the age. Japan was going through social and military changes during the Art Deco period, and the artwork created during that time expresses that.

Many of the works on display contain images of Imperial Japan at a time when the island nation was flexing its military muscle. The use of the bird of paradise, flying fish, and dragons connected Japanese art to nationalistic and militaristic activities that mirrored Japan’s conquering of New Guinea, military strength both in the sea and in the air, and the nation’s dragon class of aircraft carriers, respectively.

But Art Deco in Japan wasn’t completely consumed by militarism. It reflected changes in fashion; an emphasis on entertainment, particularly the movies; and the evolution of the Japanese woman into

Art Deco, Japanese art, Japan Society gallery, NYC

Various examples of commercial art reflecting Japan's Art Deco

Moga, or the “Modern Girl,” an icon of modern Japan. Many paintings in the exhibition depict a stronger, showier, more independent Japanese woman who embraces Western culture. Women working in popular dance halls and taking ski trips while wearing the latest fashions were recurring themes in paintings. Women sporting short sassy haircuts, drinking alcoholic beverages, and holding the ever-present cigarette were popular images that made their way into high-end art as well as onto sheet music, matchbooks that advertised bars, and movie posters.

While the Japanese woman was becoming more Western and more modern, there is evidence that she was still trying to maintain elements of her native culture with kimono and hair adornments. Even the presentation of the modern artwork harkened back to time-honored styles. One piece in the exhibit is a painting of a Moga with Western-style hair and clothing mounted on a traditional Japanese scroll.

It’s a good thing Joe Earle was wrong about a decades-long gap in the history of Japanese art, as Japan Society’s latest exhibition proves there was a great deal of beautiful, important, and functional art made by Japanese artists from 1920 until 1945.

Deco Japan: Shaping Art and Culture, 1920-1945 is on display at Japan Society Gallery and runs through June 10. For more information about the exhibit and gallery hours, visit Japan Society’s website.