Songbook for “Song of the Milky Way” (Ginga no uta) from the film Milky Way (GINGA), 1931, printed by Noguchi Tsurukichi, published by Shochiku kinema gakufu shuppansha, color lithograph, inks and color on paper, 10 7/16 x 7 1/2 in.

By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly

Xiaojin Wu, curator at the Seattle Asian Art Museum, shows me a Japanese piece that’s been first lacquered, then carved. The artist, she explains, put several layers of lacquer on first, then slowly, steadily, and taking great care for symmetry, carved the Art Deco designs into the lacquer.

Many pieces in the “Deco Japan: Shaping Art and Culture, 1920-1945” exhibit, showing at the museum through October 19th, display similar levels of attention to detail, although some items are mass-produced. 

And this particular aspect of Japanese art hasn’t been much seen in the West, until now. Almost all of the pieces in the exhibit come from Robert and Mary Levenson, a couple from Clearwater, Fla., whose interest in all things Japanese spans several decades. The original curator is Kendall H. Brown, professor of art at California State University, Long Beach. The exhibit visited several other cities before arriving here, but this is its only West Coast stop.

Art Deco originated in the 1920s in Europe, emphasizing sleek lines, bright colors, and symmetry. The ties to Futurism were strong, with optimism about the Machine Age and the salvations it promised.

In Japan, Deco was taken up after the Kanto Earthquake of 1923, which leveled both Tokyo and Yokohama.

Artists and designers, seeking solace and a way forward after the disaster, latched onto the emerging movement, and some of the optimism it carried with it, to portray their new world.

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.

The changing role of women in society also folded into Art Deco in Japan.  Cafes, bars, and dance halls flourished during this period, allowing women to appear more flamboyant, independent, and stylish in public, than previously.  The illustrator, Takabatake Kashō, compiled a list of “Ten Qualifications for Being a Moga (Modern Girl)” in 1929.  These included “Conspicuous consumption of Western food and drink,” “Real or feigned interest in dancehalls as a way to show off one’s ostensible decadence to mobo (modern boys),” and “Offering one’s lips to any man who is useful, even if he is bald or ugly, but keeping one’s chastity because ‘infringement of chastity’ lawsuits are out of style.”

And finally, as Ms. Wu points out, the exhibit itself sits under an Art Deco roof, the Asian Art Museum’s building, designed by Carl F. Gould.  It opened for business in 1933, while Deco was still the rage in Japan, although the movement eventually lost steam to rising nationalism and rejection of Western ways.  The building’s been waiting 80 years for its overseas compatriots to pay a visit.  It’s a satisfying meeting. (end)

For more information about the exhibit, visit

Andrew Hamlin can be reached at

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