Songbook for “Song of the Era of Erotic Feelings” (Erokan jidai no uta), 1930, Saitō Kazō, Japanese, 1887–1955, inks on paper, 16 x 20 in.
Songbook for “Song of the Era of Erotic Feelings” (Erokan jidai no uta), 1930, Saitō Kazō, Japanese, 1887–1955, inks on paper, 16 x 20 in.

Deco Japan at Seattle Asian Art Museum is a traveling exhibition that originated from Japan Society in New York. The various pieces are made by Japanese artists and came from one single collection. There are about 200 relatively small works; bronze vases, animal figurines, lacquer wares, enameled porcelains and metals, paintings, prints, posters and more.

The show covers the Taisho era (1912-1926), when Japan gained affluence from World War I and saw the strengthening of industrialization. These choice ornaments were made for consumption, to be held in the hands and to use. They became part of the lovely décor seen in semi-westernized modern homes. The prints and posters are attractive as they were meant to charm, to seduce, and to provoke attention. The Japanese are deft performers in the arts, quick to catch the latest trends from the outside, and shape them into their own likeness. The Deco style was no exception.

International Art Deco began in Paris, representing a style of sleek modern industrial design, carrying the allure of high culture and luxury along with the decadence of freedom found in urban cities. The term Art Deco is derived from the name of the International Exposition in Paris, Lèxposition des Arts Dècoratifs et Industiels, which opened in 1925. It was intended to showcase the latest vogue of diverse applied arts and architecture and to demonstrate the supremacy of French designs. During 1920s and 1930s, Art Deco caught the fancy of an emerging middle class and, for the first time, even the attention of the blue-collar workers toiling in factories in many countries. Around the turn of the century, there was an amazingly exciting revolution in the arts in France, Germany, Italy, and Russia, which formulated the basis of this style of decorative art.

The Japanese already had the masterful graphic tradition of Ukiyoe and an exquisite artisanship in many crafts inherited from the Edo period (1615-1868). The genre painting of beauty had also been well established since the Meiji era (1868-1912). Some of the decorative arts in this exhibition are based upon these traditions with a twist of modern interpretation. An image of deer is significant in classical literature and Shintoism, but the design of a vase with deer (cat. 34) is simplified and done in a crisp modern form, without losing any natural configuration.

And of course, some of the pieces in the show are utterly modern like a cup and saucer from a chocolate service (cat. 184). In Russia, right after the revolution of 1917, a group of artists designed utilitarian objects with an abstract geometric design for the masses, which were exhibited in the Exposition of 1925 in Paris. However this modern Japanese cup has a much softer Japanese aesthetic.

A beautiful fusion of East and West can be seen here. A woodblock print (cat. 165) entitled, “Curved line of the instant,” by Nihonga painter and woodblock designer Kiyoshi Kobayakawa was executed in 1932 (Showa 5). It catches a moment of excitement in contemporary life using a daring curved line suggested in a woman’s dancing pose. It was a time of popular entertainment introduced from the West; the Café, dance, fashion, film, jazz, popular novels, and theater. Many of the designs were duplicated numerous times into new designs for smaller mass produced items like match box labels.

A bronze and wood screen (cat. 79) by Ken’ichi Nakayama was made during World War II in 1943, but it is such a natural fusion of multiple aesthetics, sencha (tea ceremony popular among the literate of Edo period), and a cultured taste referencing literature and Buddhism, all incorporated with a dollop of the modern. It seems to embody the desire for inner peace. This is the distinct quality of Deco Japan, an admixture of the modern West and traditional Japanese aesthetics.

Kirin Ornaments (Kirin okimono), ca. 1930, Sakaida Kakiemon XII, Japanese, 1878-1963, porcelain with transparent glaze, 13 x 12 1/2 x 7 3/4 in.
Kirin Ornaments (Kirin okimono), ca. 1930, Sakaida Kakiemon XII, Japanese, 1878-1963, porcelain with transparent glaze, 13 x 12 1/2 x 7 3/4 in.

Deco is a style. For example, two paintings by Chikatoshi Enomoto (cat. 9 & 105), a student of a master Nihonga painter of the beauties who typified the era, Kiyokata Kaburagi, catches a woman in contemporary life, but the style itself belongs more to the Nihonga of that era. Nanzan Shimizu (cat. 24) was a highly respected as a carrier of the long tradition of metalwork with his superb technique, known for its inimitable sophistication. And of course, they are wonderful additions to display in this period.

One cannot forget that this also was a period of unrest amongst the masses. This was a period punctuated by labor strikes by brave young women in textile factories (who experienced similar working conditions as was the recent case in Bangladesh) during the Depression, which brought misery to millions of people. During this long recession in today’s economy, shall we take a break to enjoy living the dream of a life of luxury and beautiful things found in “Deco Japan”? Or could some of the images of women be the flip side of the coin, a reflection and the embodiment of the vitality and humanity of the working class itself? Listen closely to the voices behind these objects and decide for yourself.

‘Deco Japan: Shaping Art & Culture 1920-1945’ will be at the Seattle Asian Art Museum through October 19. The exhibition is drawn from The Levenson Collection and is organized and circulated by Art Services International, Alexandria, Virginia. Seattle Asian Art Museum is located at 1400 E. Prospect St. in Seattle’s Volunteer Park. For more information, call (206) 654-3100 or visit

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