Now through October 19, the Seattle Asian Art Museum (SAAM) is presenting Deco Japan: Shaping Art & Culture, 1920-1945. All drawn from the collection of Robert and Mary Levenson, this exhibition of nearly 200 works includes everything from painting and sculpture to postcards, matchbook covers, advertising and fashion. Altogether, they “illustrate how the international language of Art Deco united sophisticated Japanese traditional craftsmanship with modernist innovations.”
Originating in Paris, the Art Deco style incorporated international motifs–especially Egyptian–with vivid color, geometric designs, and the spirit of the Jazz Age and the modern city. Notes on the exhibit point out two reasons why Art Deco took such a strong hold in Japan. Both Tokyo and Yokohama had been devastated in a 1923 earthquake, and architects reconstructing those cities were attracted by the modernism of Deco. Additionally, Deco’s aesthetic fit nicely with the period’s more liberated social roles for Japanese women.
Those modern women feature prominently in the show, with works illustrating how the long tradition of paintings of beautiful young Japanese women morphed into portraits of equally beautiful young women skiing in fashionable sports clothes, smoking cigarettes, and drinking cocktails. The Moga or Modern Girl was known by her short bangs, bobbed hair, and painted red lips, as well as by her outlook and behavior. In 1929, the leading illustrator Takabatake Kasho compiled a list of ten qualifications for being a Moga, which was published in a magazine. The list included devotion to jazz, Paris and Hollywood fashions, and Golden Bat cigarettes, as well as knowledge of Western liquors and “a willingness to flirt to get them for free.”
Another sign of the times appears in the many images of flying fish on boxes, vases, and screens. These aerodynamically shaped creatures served as a symbol of Japanese technology and both air and sea military power. Plane designers even studied the fish’s pectoral fins for ideas.
What from a distance looks like a display of tea sets turns out to be elaborate smoking sets on lacquered trays with matching cigarette boxes, ashtrays and lighters covered with elegant geometric designs.
There are obis covered with scenes of horse races or boating or tobacco packages, and kimonos adorned with movie sets or skyscrapers. One section of the exhibit is devoted to the household decor of the “culture home”—the residences of the new upper-middle class in the suburbs. Some of the objects have that refinement traditionally associated with Japanese culture and some of them presage the arrival of Hello, Kitty.
From woodblock prints of Japanese flappers to rich red lacquered vases adorned with cranes or rabbits, the exhibit is a feast of color and vitality, plus a testament to the successful blending of tradition and modernity.
Find directions and information on SAAM’s hours at http://seattleartmuseum.org/visit/asian-art-museum