April 21, 2012
"Deco Japan" at the Japan Society
From 1920 until the 1940's, the Art Deco movement thrived on both sides of the Atlantic. From magnificent New York skyscrapers to the elegance of the SS Normandie the clean, sophisticated lines of this post World War I aesthetic spoke to a generation tired of tradition and the old ways.
What many people do not realize is that Art Deco was more than just a European and American phenomenon. With the popularity of movies and advances in travel it was not long before the new modernism spread all the way to the island nation of Japan. Much as Japonism took France by storm in the 1880's, the influence of this contemporary style was speedy and widespread, and with its own distinct flavor.
A special exhibition now on at the Japan Society is a revelation in just how far reaching the Art Deco spirit was. "Deco Japan: Shaping Art and Culture, 1920-1945" explores how the mania for modernity permeated Japanese culture in everything from matchbox labels to lacquer ware, kimonos to scrolls. This is the first time that the Japanese version of Art Deco has been presented in the United States and the 200 plus objects from kitsch to fine art are fascinating in how similar and yet different the two versions are.
The show is arranged in six sections tracing the emergence and evolution of Art Deco in Japanese art and culture. The categories of "Cultural Appropriations", "Abstract Forms and Natural Motifs", "Over and Under the Sea" and "Nationalism" show how deco design was hugely influenced by many factors including world events (for example the discovery of King Tut's tomb and the Olympic Games), flora and fauna, the increased ease and popularity of international travel and political circumstances (the Japan China war). The Japanese as a people were experiencing a time of social and technological change, an era that pitted Western liberalism with Asian traditionalism, and the brand new and hugely popular Art Deco "look" provided the ideal way to update classic imagery in a thoroughly 20th Century way.
The most amusing sections for me were "The World of the Moga" and "The Cultural Home". The "moga" was an exotic new creature - a Japanese "it" girl right down to the bobbed hair, revealing clothing, cigarette and martini glass. Quite a striking contrast to the time honored geisha and one that raised a few eyebrows! The "Modern Girl" was portrayed in all manner of media from silk screens to porcelain figurines as she embodied the new vitality of the age. Class conscious young wives may not have smoked or drank alcohol so publicly, but they did aspire to a "bunka jutaku" or "culture house", a home that combined the elegance of Japanese tatami mats with the luxury of a Western parlour. Here the clean lines of Deco design provided the perfect melding of East and West in furniture, objects and accessories.
Japan Society is located near the United Nations in a beautiful landmark building designed by the architect Junzo Yoshimura on land donated to the Society by John D. Rockefeller III. A visit to this oasis of calm is a pleasure at any time but please keep in mind that "Deco Japan" closes on June 10.