Japan in the early part of the 20th century was a place of great change and challenge, nowhere more evident than in the arts of the Taisho and early Showa eras from 1912 to 1930s. Western-oriented ideologues championed the avant-garde tastes from Europe and America. In turn, nativists sought an antidote to Western materialism in the values of the Japanese past. The crucial question of the day was: how could one be both Japanese and modern at the same time when modernity was defined as Western?
Featuring about 70 paintings, prints, textile and decorative arts the exhibition, Taisho Chic – Japanese Modernity, Nostalgia and Deco encapsulates the clash and embrace of Western modernity and traditional Japan in this transitional period. The exhibition highlights the changing role of women during the Taisho period which splits between the image of the modern girl modan gaaru or moga and the traditional girl bijinga.
Kobayakawa Kiyoshi’s Tipsy (1930) embodies the modan gaaru: dressed in a sleeveless polka-dot dress and sporting a short hairdo, she smokes a cigarette seductively. Her appearance reflects the influence of Western fashion which was seen to be trendy. Fashionable women were known to alternate between wearing the latest Western styles and the traditional kimono.
Yamakawa Shuho's Three Sisters (1936) portrays powerful juxtapositions of modernity and Japanese femininity. Three upper class women wear traditional kimonos, while posing with a Packard and a portable camera, symbolising their wealth, leisure and most importantly a familiarity with a foreign way of life.
Art Deco and Impressionism were a great inspiration for the Taisho artists who fused the elements of modernity and nostalgia to create a distinctive aesthetic. Reminiscent of Manet’s Olympia (1865) is Nakamura Daizaburo’s Woman (1930) portraying the film star, Irie Takako. A woman who oozes sophistication, she wears a bright red kimono and reclines on a 19th century European-style chaise longue.
The exhibition also contains decorative items that reflect the inclination towards the international Art Deco motif. The set of six cups and saucers on display are originally from the exclusive Mitsukoshi Department Store where Japanese women purchased the latest fashions and decorative arts. Made from glass with ruby-glass overlay and stainless steel, they are sleek and the epitome of art deco design.
The kimonos included in the show are stunning with their vivid colours, unusual techniques and bold, at times very abstract patterns that are modern interpretations of traditional motifs.
Curated by Kendall Brown, Professor of Japanese Art History at California State University Long Beach for the Honolulu Academy of Arts, the exhibition draws primarily from the Academy’s own collection. All of the decorative arts in the show are gifts from Patricia Salmon who was also the major source for the most of the paintings.
The exhibition has successfully toured in the US and Japan. The Art Gallery of New South Wales is the only venue in Australia.