The Art Deco style is instantly recognizable: streamlined shapes, gilding, glamour. In America, it sings of the speak-easy, “The Great Gatsby” and the Chrysler building. But when conjuring up mental images of this modern style, your mind might not automatically leap to Japan.
“Deco Japan,” which just opened at the Seattle Asian Art Museum, flaunts nearly 200 objects that prove how compelling this Western style was for Japan between the world wars. Among other things, there are prints, jewelry, ceramics and furniture — all compiled by Robert and Mary Levenson of Florida, who hold the world’s largest private collection of Japanese art in the Deco and Moderne styles.
And it’s a great collection. Not only is there piece after piece of elegant craftsmanship or zippy graphics, the pieces have been organized into an important show. Kendall Brown, professor of Asian art history at California State University, Long Beach, curated this traveling exhibition, and edited a thorough catalog.
So, why is the show important? It fills a gap in the history of Art Deco and in the cultural history of Japan. As Robert Levenson stated during a recent walk-through, an exhibition of this kind just wouldn’t have been possible a few decades ago. In America, anti-Japanese sentiment still ran high in the wake of World War II. And in Japan, there has been a complicated relationship with this period, which saw a rise in nationalism and Imperialist expansion.
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On the one hand, Art Deco in Japan — just like in France, where the style originated, and in America, where it thrived — signaled a joyful modernity, an embrace of the dynamism of a new machine age, and the adoption of an international, abstracted style. And so, some aspects of the works on view look almost indistinguishable from Western iterations of Deco: flat, faceted graphic design, streamlined objects, motifs borrowed from Egypt, China and Meso-America.
On the other hand, Art Deco in Japan was singular. The works are infused with tradition, albeit in altered and modernized ways. You’ll see the time-honored forms of cloisonné, screens, lacquerware and even kimonos. Motifs such as the crane, dragon and phoenix make frequent appearances.
Adopted by Japan after a massive 1923 earthquake destroyed much of Tokyo and Yokohama, the style was a way to bridge old and new, east and west.
A red 1930s vase by the Ando Jubei Company is masterfully made with the customary enamel on metal and boasts a traditional narrow-footed form, but the whole thing is updated and Art Deco-fied with bold black and white stripes.
The vase can be read for even deeper cultural significance: The black and white lines are actually sun rays, radiating outward, like the rising sun motif so strongly associated with the Japanese military. There’s a whole gallery devoted to the propagandistic use of Art Deco; the exhibition meets these sensitive issues of nationalism and imperialism head-on.
One of the most effervescent areas of the exhibition focuses on the MOGA (Modern Girl), the name for the kind of young women who boldly engaged in such unconventional behaviors as listening to jazz, smoking cigarettes, bobbing their hair, and frequenting — or even working at — dance halls.
The Modern Girl can be seen splashed across posters and paintings and immortalized in ceramic figurines. This vision of the MOGA is fleshed out by an Art Deco living room setting and the kinds of things she might have worn or used: flashy hair pins and sleekly designed clocks and bookends.
And if you need yet another reason to see this show, it’s a great opportunity to admire the building in which it’s housed. The Seattle Asian Art Museum’s 1933 Art Deco building is one of the city’s finest examples of the international reach of the style.