Thursday, February 4, 2016

"Japan’s picture ID before World War II"

Images and text borrowed from The Japan Times, 2/2/16.

[T]he Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo currently has an exhibition of tourism posters and other promotional material from the 1920s and ’30s. It is a fascinating and at times unusually beautiful glimpse into how different art movements, regional craft practices and the spirit of the times contribute to forming commercial visual culture.

Given that the function of a promotional poster is to seduce you, with perhaps only a few seconds in which to do it, you can expect to feel pandered to — complex history and culture, beautiful landscapes and far-east exoticism have been condensed into powerfully sweet eye-candy. A surprising range of media were employed in this, including traditional woodblock prints, painting and photography. For many of the exhibits, the level of creativity and design is very high, commensurate with the desire to show off Japan at its best.

Apart from this, the exhibition is a great opportunity to consider how Japan’s national identity was constructed in the interwar years. It should be no surprise that the “come hither” message relied heavily on sexuality to catch the viewer’s eye. Many of the posters use images of young women in kimono as a stand in for Japan as a whole.

In a 1911 poster for the South Manchurian Railway by artist Renzo Kita, a demure female companion sits across from us in a railway carriage with the sun setting behind an ancient stupa in the window behind her. The poster is sponsored by Thomas Cook, and is in the style of an Edwardian illustration. The copy tells us that the new rail link brings London “within a fortnight’s journey from Tokyo, Peking and Shanghai, thus saving much time and money, as well as the tedium of a long sea-voyage.”

Our female companion is depicted in a style characteristic of the Gothic period to portray aristocratic or sacred figures; languid, expressionless, elongated and pale. Her blue kimono is decorated with white lilies, symbolic of chastity and purity. On her obi is a butterfly, the symbol of the soul, and perhaps a nod to the opera by Puccini, which had premiered seven years earlier. The undergarment below the kimono is a warm ruddy orange, and using a visual pun common to shunga (erotic prints), appears at the edge of the sleeves as wrinkled slit-shaped orifices. The artist seems to be the same Renzo Kita who later created the solemn historical painting “Last Moments of Admiral Yamaguchi,” which commemorates the admiral’s death in the 1942 Battle of Midway.


“Visit Japan: Tourism Promotion in the 1920s and 1930s” at the The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo runs until Feb. 28; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. ¥430 (includes admission to the “MOMAT Collection”). Closed Mon.


Exhibition website:

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