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Taisho Sophisticates

by Stephen Mansfield

TAISHO CHIC: Japanese Modernity, Nostalgia, and Deco, text by various contributors. Honolulu Academy of Arts, 2002, 176 pp., 7,390 yen (cloth).

There are certain historical periods that resonate with a style and sophistication that is inimitable. They last for only a short, intense few years. The Restoration in England, coinciding with the florid tastes and theatricality of Japan’s Genroku age, was one such period, the Belle Epoch another.

The Taisho era (1912-26) was a very special time. During the period the authorities temporarily relaxed their hold on civil conduct, a reaction perhaps to the physically and morally corrupted state of Japan’s central symbol, the emperor. Unkindly portrayed as a syphilitic lunatic, the new emperor was a poor successor to his father. Enfeebled by deteriorating health and bouts of eccentric behavior, these and other negative compound factors “made him a parody of the ideal that the emperor was a ‘Manifest deity.’ “

The breakdown of social norms common under a dissolute head were, however, only temporary. As the shadows of militarism lengthened, the fashions and tastes of a more liberal and generous age, were deemed subversive. With the military back at the helm and a highly acquiescent new emperor in situ, Japan was once again a command-control society. Generals and officers were the new arbiters of taste, a fact evident even in art circles.

By the late 1930s, art institutions, bodies that set up and sat on their own selection committees, were reorganized to exert more state control over the art world.

The Honolulu Academy of Arts has drawn attention, with the publication of “Taisho Chic,” to an important and highly distinctive artistic period that carried these political and social resonances. During the Edo period and Meiji era, print and canvas images of bijinga or “beautiful women” images were fashionable. Haunted by the sensual images and idealizations of those times, Taisho artists went further, adding deliberate touches of modernity — a casually held cigarette, a cocktail glass, microphone stand, jazz dancers, bobbed hair. Many of the images are striking. The women in these prints have a physicality that is denied them in the more diaphanous, winsome treatment of the classic bijinga practitioners. The vivid color schemes are likewise more assertive. The differences may appear to be naive and marginal, however, taken in the sociopolitical context, it is more significant than first imagined.

The images engage in a modern dialogue, one in which women were beginning to question society, and society was beginning to question women. While some artists chose subjects that would aid their retreat into the past, others opted to eschew depictions of women sitting pensive before their mirrors or appraising their cosmetics, in favor of subjects playing golf, stepping out of automobiles, or, unthinkable a decade earlier, staring back squarely at the artist. The impact at the time of these seemingly minor innovations, cannot be overestimated.

Bijinga continued to be popular even in the postwar era. It baffled Western observers of the contemporary Japanese art scene who saw, as Kendall Brown writes in his allotted section of this book, only “repetitive styles and prosaic subjects.” Many Japanese admirers, however, saw “masterly control of forms and eternally compelling themes.”

Innovation in the arts, political dissidence and the so-called “new women,” met with equal measures of admiration and opprobrium. Fashionably clad women out in public aroused intense interest, but also caused anxiety. The prints and other items collected in this fine book reflect a compelling vogue for Western habits and objects.

The Taisho period witnessed a vogue in everything from ceramic figurines, enka songbooks and new textile art, to glassware and art deco furniture. The objects represented in this exquisite book, and the illuminating essays that accompany them, reflect and comment on the changing tastes, discernments, and social aspirations of the times.

Added interest comes from the fact that the art and craft objects that appear in this book are placed within the broader context of what was taking place during the period. The sudden popularity, for example, of ceramic figurines, often modeled on paintings of Japanese actresses and socialites, demonstrated the increasing commercial side of society, with department stores emerging as the then unlikely venues for exhibitions.

Taisho experimentation saw the advance of the women’s movement, the growth of unions, the brief flowering of so-called “Taisho democracy,” but in terms of historical events, very little actually happened. The brevity of the Taisho era left less history than experience. The period did, however, represent a very real search for a modern cultural identity, an effort that to some extent is still going on today.

Sadly, innovations in style and design and the mood of liberalism embraced by the demimonde and wealthy, the two groups best placed to appreciate the changes, were not strong enough to resist the freedom-crushing militarists. As for the “new women,” they would have to go underground for a good decade before re-emerging from the rubble of defeat.