Inside the exclusive Japanese Modernism exhibition at the NGV

Tea and coffee salon, Sabō’, 1939 by Saeki Shunkō. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Purchased with funds donated by Alan and Mavourneen Cowen, The Myer Foundation and the NGV Supporters of Asian Art, 2015
Tea and coffee salon, Sabō’, 1939 by Saeki Shunkō. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Purchased with funds donated by Alan and Mavourneen Cowen, The Myer Foundation and the NGV Supporters of Asian Art, 2015
The National Gallery of Victoria has opened an exclusive exhibition showcasing more than 190 works from the first half of the 20th century - a culturally formative period in Japan.

The early 1920s until the late 1930s was a visually exciting era for Japan, and its most striking works are on display at the NGV in its Japanese Modernism exhibition. Visitors can expect to see a captivating collection of art and ephemera that includes rare paintings, colour woodblock prints, street posters, magazines, graphic designs, innovative fashion and beautifully-crafted homewares.

The exhibition is the culmination of a five-year collecting period for the NGV. The gallery’s senior curator of Asian art, Wayne Crothers, explains that collecting the works involved accessing word of mouth networks with everyone from art dealers, to private collectors, to second-hand bookshops, to woodblock print galleries, to kimono advisers. “Japan has had a history of construction and then destruction. A lot of things were created in that era but the things that remain are all scattered and few and far between,” says Crothers. “It was a great project to work on but certainly the collecting involved a lot of research and discussions with numerous different collectors and professionals in the area.”

Wayne Crothers, Senior Curator, Asian Art, NGV with Saeki Shunkō Tea and coffee salon, Sabō 1939 inside Japanese Modernism, open at NGV International 28 February 2020 – 4 October 2020.
Photo: Tim Carrafa

The exhibition represents the vibrance and optimism of the narrow window of time bookended by the destruction of the 1923 Great Kantō Earthquake and the calamities of World War II – tragedies that saw major cities flattened. In between these events, Japan underwent major redevelopment. Tokyo and Osaka were built into modern cities that were influenced by the fashions in Europe, blended with Japan’s own traditional art and aesthetics. The cities became filled with department stores, dance halls, cafes and movie theatres. The first subway in Asia was built in Tokyo in 1927. One of the main iconic posters of the era celebrating the opening of that subway – ‘The first subway in the East’ by graphic artist Hisui Sugiura – features in the exhibition. Crothers says this key work embodies the progressive nature of Japanese modern cities at the time. He notes images and others like it in the exhibition are very rare because posters “are not things that people hung onto”.

Hisui Sugiura, The first subway in the East 1927, colour lithograph, offset 91.0 x 62.0 cm. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Purchased NGV Foundation, 2018 © Estate of Hisui Sugiura

This time of transformation saw Japan develop a vibrant consumer culture. The terms “moga” and “mobo” arose for “modern girls” and “modern boys” respectively. These “moga” and “mobo” became symbols for the era, and it was an especially significant time for women. “The era can be considered the first generation of liberated women in Asia because all of a sudden the cities had cafes and restaurants and department stores, and all these positions opened up where women could work and earn a salary and become financially liberated from their families,” explains Crothers. “Country girls came to the cities where they could work, rent their own apartments, and they could buy the clothes they wanted to buy, the fashion they wanted. They didn’t have to wear the dowdy kimono that their parents would tell them to wear. They could lead a life of their own.”

These “moga” and “mobo” began to break the conservative social practices of their parents’ generation. “They were sort of frowned upon by conservatives, seen as a threat to their social norms, to the status quo, to the comforting social structure that the older generation was happy with,” says Crothers. Along with this generation of financially independent women came female artists who were being recognised in Japan’s traditionally male-dominated art world. Artworks of the time including ‘Tea and coffee salon, Sabō’ 1939 by Saeki Shunkō and ‘Waiting for Makeup’ 1938 by Negishi Ayako captured these self-assured and highly-fashionable women of the modern era.

Waiting for Makeup (Keshō o matsu), 1938 by Negishi Ayako. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Purchased with funds donated by Jennifer and Brian Tymms, 2018

One of the highlights of the exhibition will be Japanese artist Taniguchi Fumie’s large sixfold screen ‘Preparing to go out’ (Yosoou hitobito). Fumie’s burgeoning career was cut short after she evacuated to the countryside to escape the final bombing raids of World War II. She left Japan in the 1950s, eventually settling in Los Angeles. It’s believed she never painted again. ‘Preparing to go out’, created in 1935, is the artist’s major work of the time. Taking inspiration from the 17th century Matsuura screens, this trailblazing piece captures changing attitudes towards women, consumerism and fashion in the early 20th century. “They’re preparing to go out on the town but they’re also leaving the past behind – they are the new, young, confident women of the age,” explains Crothers. “Fumie was breaking all of those restrictions that were placed on women in a male-dominated world.”

Taniguchi Fumie, Women preparing for a party (Yoso ō hitobito) 1935, ink and colour on silk, 176.8 x 364.0 cm. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Purchased with funds from the Estate of Kevin and Eunice McDonald and NGV Foundation, 2019 © Estate of Taniguchi Fumie

The ‘moga’ and ‘mobo’ generation is also detailed in the innovative fashion pieces of the exhibition, including kimonos for women and men displaying playful contemporary designs. Explaining the “outrageous” Art Deco design on a kimono from the NGV’s collection, Crothers says it demonstrates what a young girl would buy to make a fashion statement. “It’s something parents definitely wouldn’t have chosen for their daughter to wear,” he says.

Women’s kimono with geometric Modernist design and accessories c. 1930 silk, cotton, wool, straw, wood, vinyl, plastic and metal, 106.8 x 63.8 cm (kimono)

Crothers worked with advisers on fashion of the era to bring together not just kimonos, but a suite of complementary accessories that make up an outfit. ‘Obi’ sashes, brooches, handbags, sandals, parasols and hair pins were all bought together to demonstrate how a woman would select options for the wardrobe. “The ensemble of items that she would have brought together is a statement of her personality and her taste as opposed to something her mother would want her to wear,” says Crothers. “One kimono is celebrating the maker, but the ensemble of objects that you choose to mix and match – they’re all not just representing the maker, they’re representing the individual, the people of the time.”

The NGV says Japanese Modernism is the result of a strategy to build the gallery’s holdings of art and design from this little-recognised era of Asian art. “It’s such a lively era that has so many fascinating stories to it, that hasn’t been looked at in exhibitions and collections previously,” Crothers says. “We’re focusing on this because there’s a large demographic of young Asian culture in Australia.” Crothers believes it’s “really important” to represent 20th century Asian culture at the gallery. “We’re trying to represent the people of the era and mood of the era, as well as showing great works by artists at the time.”


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