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WASHINGTON, DC — In the 1930s, a series of novels known as Vanguard Jazz Literature was published in Japan, the books’ pages chronicling the fast-paced lifestyles of people living through a period of great social change. Tokyo, following the Great Kantō earthquake in 1923, was rapidly transforming into a modern metropolis with the emergence of cafés, dance halls, cinemas, and bars. Increasingly speedy transportation allowed people to travel the country to pursue leisurely activities such as skiing — just one of the Western sports the Japanese were starting to adopt. The various covers of Vanguard Jazz Literature celebrated this Western-influenced culture through arresting visuals of skyscrapers, theaters, and women preparing for a night out fueled by the flow of both liquor and jazz.
A striking poster advertising the novels is part of a wondrous traveling exhibition, currently at Hillwood Museum. Deco Japan hones in on these dynamic social shifts as they were expressed through Japanese art and design from the 1920s to the ’40s. As its title implies, the show explores the Japanese expression of Art Deco and is the first show to do so outside of Japan. The colors, forms, lines, and shapes of the style — made internationally popular by the 1925 Paris Exhibition — manifested in many artworks and manufactured goods created in Japan during those years, from paintings to matchbox designs to domestic furnishings like clocks and bookends. The cultural hybridity was, in a way, a reversal of the one that emerged in Western Europe in the late-19th century, when Japonism swept through the region, captivating the Impressionists in particular.
The roughly 200 objects on view (almost all drawn from the collection of Robert and Levy Levenson) include ceramics, paintings, prints, sculptures, jewelry, textiles, and furniture. They exemplify how the Japanese reworked their own traditional designs, materials, and objects with innovation: hanging scroll paintings, woodblock prints, and kimonos, for instance, carry unexpected imagery of tipsy women wearing flapper dresses and puffing imported cigarettes.
Nearly every object commands your attention — they are, simply put, sexy — but among the most alluring ones are small, utilitarian items you’d commonly find in a Japanese home, made of gleaming materials: a white bronze incense burner shaped like a rotund but refined mandarin duck; metal smoking sets adorned with plant motifs; an enameled porcelain sake cup washing bowl with a Constructivist design; and, my personal favorite, a sake flask in the form of an Akita — the dog officially designated a Japanese Natural Monument in 1931 due to its population decline.
Nationalism was on the rise during these decades, and the sleek, refined forms of Art Deco were ideal for Japanese artists to express pride in their country’s successes. A 1937 travel poster on view advertises the swift government railways, showing a train as just a blur of color, with its diagonal composition emphasizing a fast-retreating scenery. A series of large-scale paintings by Enomoto Chikatoshi that celebrate a thriving dance hall in Tokyo exudes the luxury associated with Art Deco: the fan-shaped paintings — a traditional Japanese format — depict beautiful, confident dancers in Western dress against a backdrop of opulent golden paint. Chikatoshi also salutes his country’s first commercial aquarium in another painting of a young Japanese girl, again in Western dress, captivated by swimming, streamlined fish. More than educational centers, aquariums put on display the resources at hand to capture and exhibit exotic marine life for the masses.
Moga, the modern Japanese woman, red-lipped and bob-haired, appears often in Deco Japan — in paintings, in prints, and on the covers of jazz songbooks. The wealth of imagery dedicated to these made-up, vivacious women (depictions of men, in contrast, are rare) makes sense: their beauty and affinity for furs and berets encapsulate the glamour, elegance, pleasure, and seduction of Art Deco. They were also busy consumers, purchasing things to assert economic privilege. From makeup to hairpins to compact mirrors, mass-produced personal items, too, began to feature geometric designs and luminous colors.
A 1930 print by Kobayakawa Kiyoshi portrays the quintessential moga: wearing a dynamic polka dot shirt, she’s armed with a cocktail and a cigarette, with a comb adorning her cropped hair. She wears gleaming jewelry, but most arresting are her eyes, which look straight at the viewer, and are just the slightest bit droopy. Kiyoshi’s title sums up the portrait in a single word: “Tipsy.” She’s caught between states; her narrative up-in-the-air — and the enticing draw of her expression left me wanting to know more about her and her relationship to Kiyoshi.
Curiosity is another desire on which Deco Japan feeds: it is a gorgeous survey of the decorative and fine arts made in this interwar period, one that immerses visitors in a thrilling era but largely allows the objects to speak for themselves. It is easy to appreciate their physical beauty, but, for all their unique forms, they make up one very particular moment that is largely unseen in the Western world. Having an opportunity to admire them only stokes interest in their histories and their makers.