In the years between World Wars I and II, Japan became a modern industrial nation that embraced Western culture even as it chafed under the West's worldwide economic dominance. We know where Japan's ambitions led it: into a devastating confrontation with the United States that left it broken at the end of the second world war.
But before that devastation, the country was a great sponge, absorbing and appropriating cultural references, especially those from Europe and the United States.
"Deco Japan: Shaping Art and Culture, 1920-45" is an illuminating exhibition at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art that illustrates the deftness with which that country melded its own traditions with new foreign influences.
Art deco was an art and design movement that began in Paris in the 1920s and quickly became an international phenomenon. (Something I learned: the term "art deco" was coined in 1966 so it wasn't called that at the time.) Cross-pollination between East and West began to thrive in the 19th century and continued into the 20th century. At that time, Japan sought to develop itself as a world power and encouraged a greater participation in the ways of the rest of the world. That included art, so what we call art deco naturally made its way into Japan.
The 200 or so objects in this show represent a broad and pervasive spectrum of this deco hybrid, used stylistically for everything from fine art to household goods. There are seven thematic sections that range from social issues such as Japan's nationalistic spirit during those decades to the formal aesthetics of the works themselves.
Because much of Japanese life was controlled by the government, we see a lot of consistency in how art deco was interpreted and used. The cigarette industry, for example, was government-owned, so smoking was promoted and glamorized. Smoking sets with a lighter, cigarette box and ashtray became fashionable home accessories, and the sets in this show would have been part of the luxury market.
One set made of rosewood is adorned with a stylized leaping stag of hammered silver that was inspired by a famous design from the 1925 decorative arts exposition in Paris. The deer would have resonated with Japanese buyers not just because it was au courant but also because the deer for centuries was associated with Buddhism. Many deco motifs were similarly mined for broader associations including several charming table clocks.
Representations of people evolved, too. The traditional ideals of beauty gave way to bobbed hair and rouged cheeks. The remote, mysterious geishas of the floating world yielded to Western-gowned dance hall girls. This new modern woman became ubiquitous in advertising promotions and commercial design. Even portraits of kimono-clad women were tweaked. A boldly composed one of a woman descending a stair wearing a kimono includes details such as red nail polish and a Hollywood-style fox stole.
Graphic arts became an important expressive outlet for art deco. Japanese artists continued to use the woodblock for art prints, but lithography became increasingly important in the growing advertising industry. Leading artists were hired to create visual campaigns such as one for Japanese Railways to attract foreign tourists. Noted painter Satomi Munetsugu, who was trained and lived in Paris, was recruited, and he created the vibrant, evocative scene that included the exciting rush of high-speed travel with the timeless serenity of islands in a calm sea.
Beautiful artistic methods such as lacquering, bronze sculpting and inlay are used in service to new decorative motifs or old ones reimagined. Flying fish became popular in the 1930s because they resembled the newly important airplane but still represented Japan's age-old maritime connection. Phoenix dragons and cranes, all symbols of strength for centuries, also represent military might in 1930s and 1940s Japan.
Throughout, there are objects that represent nothing more than loveliness. The sinuous undulations of art deco married well with Japanese aesthetics. Already accustomed to stylization and simplification of forms, Japanese artists and craftsmen adapted their techniques to the more graphic deco in vases and vessels they created.
"Deco Japan" immerses us in a movement that has been ignored since the end of World War II when a defeated nation wanted to look forward to rehabilitation rather than backward to painful memories. The exhibition comes from the private collection of Robert and Mary Levenson, who live in Clearwater and were able to assemble such a comprehensive group because Japanese art deco wasn't considered valuable. (Until now.) The collection has rarely been seen in such depth anywhere (curator Kendall Brown says this show represents about half of the total collection) or seen at all in the United States until recently. This is the second of a four-stop tour, and we're very fortunate to have it in our region. I learned a lot, and I enjoyed myself even more.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8293.