By KEN JOHNSON
Japanese Art Deco sounds like an oxymoron. Rightly or wrongly, we — we Americans, that is — are likely to envision the Japanese in the 1920s and ’30s as almost entirely focused on militarism and expansionism. Yet, as an exhibition at Japan Society proves, there were more than enough time and resources in that era for Japanese artists, designers and consumers to cultivate their own version of Art Deco, that excruciatingly suave Western style of art, design and décor.
This beautiful and sociologically intriguing show, “Deco Japan: Shaping Art and Culture, 1920-1945” displays about 200 objects, including painting, sculpture, ceramics, glassware, jewelry, fashion and printed ephemera, almost all of them from the collection of Robert and Mary Levenson of Clearwater, Fla. (There are also five paintings on loan from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.)
What is striking about almost everything in the show is how seamlessly East and West and old and new are wed. An uninformed visitor could be forgiven for believing that the Japanese invented Art Deco. And, in a way, that viewer would not be wrong. Japonisme, the European fad for all things Japanese that took hold in the latter half of the 19th century, decisively influenced Western aesthetics in both the fine and applied arts. The Japanese love of formal economy and technical transparency is in the DNA of European Deco, so when Japanese artists and designers looked Westward in the 1920s, what they saw was not as foreign as you might have thought.
Some objects in the exhibition blend tradition and innovation so adeptly that it would be hard, without context, to guess in what century they were made. The glossy red lacquer surface of a gracefully bulbous vase by Iriyama Hakuo from the 1930s is incised with concentric lines revealing tan, brown and green under layers and creating bold diamond and triangular shapes. The technique is thoroughly traditional, and while the composition reflects a modern love of futuristic abstraction, it also harks back to centuries of play with geometric form by Japanese craftsmen.
The leap from old to new is more obvious in many cases, but it is never jarring. An irresistibly charming piece of fine silver work, an incense burner in the form of a fat little bird, by Jomi, has a rounded body that Brancusi, the European Modernist, would have envied. Angular wings and a tail with vents for the aromatic smoke add a mechanical aspect. The catalog identifies this diminutive creature, with its open, upturned beak as the “plump sparrow,” an emblem of good fortune derived from an old folk tale.
Two other birds, cranes by Nakamura Kenji (also known as Chikueido Eishin II), are represented as planar constructions mimicking the ancient art of origami. Embodied in gleaming silver rather than paper — one of them gilt to a golden hue — they could be hood ornaments for sleek modern automobiles.
The exhibition presents a veritable menagerie of animals: lions, bears, peacocks, rabbits and flying fish, as well as mythical fauna like dragons, phoenixes and flying horses. Whether in two or three dimensions, naturalism is invariably modified by abstraction. Some pieces lean toward minimalistic simplification; some are faceted, Cubist style; and some emphasize flowing lines.
There might be simple nostalgia in these zoological works, but the modernized animal also suggests a more complicated metaphor. Art Deco was nothing if not urban and urbane — euphorically so. More than just a style, it was newness itself, in an eclectic array of seductively material forms. But maybe, under the glitzy surfaces of modernity’s artificial paradise, there was anxiety about the loss of connection to nature. Perhaps the Art Deco bestiary was a form of consolation for that loss.
A section of the show is devoted to the modern woman, one who enjoys a liberation paralleling that of her Jazz Age sisters in America and Europe. In numerous paintings and sculptures, women dance, drink, smoke, relax in states of near nudity and otherwise revel in hedonistic freedom that recalls the old, Edo-period district of pleasurable pursuits known as the Floating World. A gauzy watercolor picturing men and women in fancy Western dress dancing in a nightclub, believed to be by either Toyoharu or Yamamura Toyonari, could be mistaken for a painting of nocturnal life in Manhattan by Charles Demuth.
In a large painting rendered in delicate shades of jade-green ink by Enomoto Chikatoshi, a young woman in a sensible, Western-style dress gazes through the window of a public aquarium at swimming fish. A wall of glass separates her from the primordial cycles of nature to which tradition used to confine her essential being.
The idealization of this new, independent femininity can be seen as an imaginary compensation for what industry and commerce were more often doing: turning people into cogs in the machinery of mass production and distribution. That was the dark side of the happy, Deco moon.
In his catalog essay Kendall H. Brown, the exhibition’s organizer and a scholar of modern Japanese art, notes even deeper shadows. Although seemingly apolitical in its luxurious sensuality, Japanese Deco was rife with symbols of patriotism and imperialistic ambition. Dragons, bulls, phoenixes and rising suns that look innocuous to a Western viewer today were understood then to represent Japan’s emergence as an industrial and military giant. Mr. Brown identifies eight Japanese aircraft carriers named after dragons or phoenixes plying the seas in the 1940s.
Art Deco fell from grace in post-World War II Japan. In the 1950s, Mr. Brown observes, its association with “the ‘dark valley’ of cultural decadence and militant nationalism” made it seem not only old-fashioned but also shameful. That explains at least partly why Japanese Deco has been practically unknown in the West. To retrieve it from the memory hole now is not to absolve it of all sin but to see it for what it was: a fascinating episode in the adventure of modern aesthetics.
“Deco Japan: Shaping Art and Culture, 1920-1945” is on view through June 10 at Japan Society, 333 East 47th Street, Manhattan; (212) 832-1155, japansociety.org.