First... what is Art Deco? It's an artistic style and design that got its start in 1920's Paris, lasting through the 1930s.
It has a linear symmetry, which was considered a dramatic move away the flowing asymmetrical organic curves of its predecessor style art nouveau.
Art Deco was influenced - and utilized heavily many different artistic styles of the 20th: neoclassical, constructivism, cubism, modernism and futurism (or certainly what passed for futurism back in the 1920s). It was was inspired by designs from ancient Egyptian and Aztec cultures and can be found in architecture (the Chrysler Building is a favourite of mine), interior design, industrial design, fashion, jewelery, painting, graphic arts and film (see Metropolis).
Now the term Art Deco wasn't really used at the time it was popular. Rather it was coined in 1966 for an exhibition in Paris celebrating the 1925 International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts.
Ah... now let's get to the point... Art Deco and Japan.
Anyhow... Japan was no different from the rest of the world. It too created many works in the Art Deco style. But what was important was that this at movement really did help move Japan out from its stylized look of the samurai, ninja and rice paddies.
While Japan certainly has always had a fine tradition of fine arts, Art Deco specifically led Japan's many artists to look beyond the past to create a new modern look and feel for the country... a new hope, if you will, especially after the devastating Great Kanto earthquake of 1923 destroyed Tokyo worse than any rampage by Godzilla. As such, there are many fine examples of Art Deco style buildings in Tokyo.
The style sought to capture the modern life while presenting the future. Japanese Art Deco artists also tried to place their own cultural identity into their artwork by using native decorative elements (say origami swans as brass decorative desk designs) or subject matter (girl in a kimono) while still showing it was part of the global village (holding a record, or smoking while in a jazz bar). The key message delivered by Japanese art deco was glamour, fun, and a wee bit of whimsy and fantasy.
In the mid 1920's and 1930s, new technologies such as motion picture cinemas popped up, westernized hotels, night clubs - big city living were all the rage. Urban culture caused many a small-town boy and girl to dream of leaving home to see the big, bright lights of Tokyo. And Art Deco melded the modernization and furturism with the traditions of the past, and in Japan it also added in that bit of Asian luster to better appeal to the masses. East meets West? Sure. Up until 1868, most of Japan had indeed been sealed from western styles (both good and bad)... and as the years progressed and modern travel of the early 20th century became more affordable and easier to do, the desire to add more western influences to Japan increased.
I can still recall being taken aback by a new set of houses being built in my adoptive city of Ohtawara, Tochigi-ken (Tochigi Prefecture), Japan back in 1992. The roofs no longer had that cool Asian look to them, and instead looked as blah as what we have in Canada and the U.S. People everywhere wore clothing with English (or at least words written in the Roman alphabet) written all over it - even if they had no clue what it said... kind of like all the people who put Chinese or Japanese kanji letters all over their arms hoping it means something cool (sometimes it doesn't!).
This may sound stupid, but the 1923 earthquake may have helped Tokyo grow (and I hope the same can be said for the areas devastated by the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami, too). It allowed the city (and country) a chance to change the way people looked at japan, and the way it looked at itself.
Particular works of art in metal, ceramic and lacquer serve as great examples of Japanese art deco of that time.
Should you wish to see some wonderful examples of Japanese Art Deco, there is a traveling tour in the US in 2012, with only the first two stops confirmed at the time of this writing:
- March 16 - June 17, 2012: The Japan Society Gallery, in New York City;
- July 14 - September 30, 2012: The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, in Sarasota, Florida.
By the way... click on the Ringling link above... the art they have there is NOT what you might expect... at least it wasn't what I expected. I'm not sure if I'm relieved or disappointed. Hmmm.
Click HERE for more details and updates, and for some great photographic examples of Japanese Art Deco.
Want more: Check this out... it's a YouTube video of the former Prince Asaka's residence built in 1933:
So... while doing some research on the topic, my old pal Mike Rogers who lives in Tokyo and creates the excellent Marketing Japan blog seems to have beaten me to the punch... by about a year. Bugger. Oh well... it does save me some writing.
Here's Mike's Marketing Japan blog on Art Deco. It's pretty COOL.