San Francisco Chronicle
by Beth Hughes, Special to the Chronicle
October 9, 2005
A period of Japanese history largely unknown in the West -- or at
least skipped in the popular progression from "Shogun"
to Commodore Perry, Emperor Meiji, World War II, and now, kimono,
Godzilla and Astro Boy -- is the subject of a UC Berkeley Museum
of Modern Art exhibition, "Taisho Chic: Japanese Modernity,
Nostalgia, and Deco."
It was a time, in the early 20th century when Japan struggled to
define its place in the world and itself at home. It is this tension
that gives the exhibition a "Where's Waldo" touch. Each
work looks like what you'd expect. Women embody beauty. Nature reigns
supreme. Patterns allude to classic works of literature or art.
Everything's just so. Until you notice the lightbulb pull cord on
a traditional red lacquer and paper lamp. Or realize that the makeup
looks flapper, not geisha. That's when the fun starts, even if your
knowledge of Japanese artistic techniques begins and ends with origami
cranes. Each work looks like nothing you'd expect as modern, Western
touches make you realize that this was a time of enormous change
in every aspect of life. And each touch of change makes you wonder
what on earth is going on here?
Emperor Meiji, who oversaw the end of feudalism and the emergence
of his nation as a modern state with a leading role on the world
stage, died in 1912. His successor, Emperor Taisho, looked the part,
but his physical and mental limitations brought about the appointment
of Crown Prince Hirohito as regent in 1921 until Hirohito assumed
the throne in 1926.
With that imperial drama as a backdrop, tradition clashed with modernity.
Women bobbed their hair yet still wore kimono unless they were out
dancing, drinking and carrying on in the shapeless shifts of Jazz
Age flappers. The economy shifted from agricultural to industrial,
creating a vast gap in living standards. The power of economic conglomerates
grew, matched only by the membership surge in proletarian groups
and social criticism. Movies, magazines, newspapers, novels and
radio spread popular culture throughout the population, even into
rural areas. Dissatisfaction with the West grew, culminating with
the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Amid this tension, artists created the show's 60 works, which include
scroll paintings, folding screens, woodblock screens, decorative
objects and kimono. One look at "Tipsy," a 1930 woodblock
print of a modern woman by Kobayakawa Kiyoshi, and you can feel
the speed of change. With her short hair and sleeveless polka-dot
shift, she's adapting with a cocktail or two.
The works shimmer between tradition and modernity, hinting at a
life fast disappearing even as new ways still needed some tailoring
to fit well. A 1936 screen painting by Yamakawa Shuho of three kimono-clad
sisters sightseeing in a grand touring car fit for a Western captain
of industry suggests the emergence of the leisure time that comes
from substantial wealth. A table of lacquered wood with mother-of-pearl
inserts is a traditional low square in nontraditional shades of
pink, green and blue. A woman's jacket departs from tradition with
its brightly stencil-printed fabric featuring an overall pattern
of bold, overlapping magenta, yellow and gray hearts, symbols of
a modern kind of romantic love.
Indeed, the kimono made its last creative stand during the Taisho
era, according to Liza Dalby, the cultural anthropologist and author
who gave the first in a series of lectures scheduled to coincide
with the exhibition, which originated at the Honolulu Academy of
Arts and will stop in Tokyo before heading home to the islands.
Kimono fabric changed, becoming bolder as sensibilities and weaving
techniques changed. Traditionally white collars became richly patterned.
Ties and clasps became bold. Dalby pointed out that the social changes
of the era, and there were many, could be tracked by changes in
women's clothing. Until 1911, most women wore kimono. From 1912
to 1926, they wore kimono most of the time but some wore Western
clothing, which gained in popularity as more women entered the workforce
and wore company uniforms. Girls adopted sailor-suit school uniforms
during this period, the style that remains in use both in reality
and in the fantasy worlds of manga and anime. During World War II,
the government banned kimono.
The clothes revealed the changing role of Japanese women during
the Taisho period. Avid consumers of new styles from Europe and
America, the modern women, known as a modan gaaru or moga, were
office workers, shopgirls or waitresses who enjoyed unprecedented
economic freedom for women in Japanese society.
Artists reflected the change and the conflict by adapting traditional
motifs to new Western techniques. One of the show's signature images
is a painting by Nakamura Daizaburo of the beautiful film actress
Takato in a kimono reclining on a chaise longue, a popular addition
to the token Western-style room many Japanese families set aside
in their homes. Takato's pose suggests Manet's "Olympia,"
said Constance Lewallen, the
senior curator at the Berkeley Art Museum. That image may have shocked
Paris in 1865, but the Japanese company produced a painted ceramic
figurine of Daizaburo's model, which is also included in the Berkeley
Such mass-produced products marked the Taisho period, as did such
practical household items as an aluminum condiment set and tray.
Sleek and very modern, it could be featured in a design-conscious
magazine or shop today in Tokyo, Milan or San Francisco, even though
it captures the cross-cultural influences bubbling in Japan at the
time. A simple, portable music stand with dovetail joints and sections
held together by a
purple cord is just as up-to-date. Traditionally made of black lacquer
and often heavily decorated, this one is plain wood.
The exhibition takes this full circle with the inclusion of a molded
terra-cotta tile that resembles the family crest on a kimono from
Frank Lloyd Wright's Imperial Hotel, which opened in Tokyo in 1922.
Built of reinforced concrete, wood and an inexpensive local tone,
the building withstood the 1923 earthquake that killed 100,000 people
in Tokyo and destroyed the homes of many more before the ensuing
fire blazed across almost half the city. Many people believed that
the materialism and changes of modern life caused the disaster.
Three of 10 songbooks in the show are illustrated with images of
the earthquake and fire. "Daishinsai no uta" (Songs of
the Great Earthquake, 1924), "Shinsai aiwa" (Sad Tale
of the Earthquake, 1924) and "Fukko Kouta" (Song of Recovery,
1924) all topped the charts. The title song in "Daishinsai
no uta," by Shibuya Hakurui, compared the earthquake to Buddhist
hell as earthquake victims struggle to climb from the fires. The
title song of "Shinsai Aiwa" by Satsuki-sei eulogizes
a cafe waitress trapped when the building collapses. The cover shows
a man holding an infant in one arm as he bends over a woman, the
silhouette of a burned-out building behind them. In "Fukko
Kouta," the title song by Beniya Shunsho, things are looking
up. Vendors are selling dumpling soup, and the singer vows that
while his house may be ash, "our Tokyo spirit did not die.
And the world did, as Hirohito assumed the throne on Taisho's death
on Dec. 25, 1926. Nationalism and imperial loyalty escalated and
social criticism decreased. By 1931, Japan's incursion into China
marked an irrevocable change.
Kimono demonstration by East Bay collector Joanna Mest will feature
the bold designs of the Taisho period. 3 p.m. Oct. 16.
Gala dinner and fashion show. 5 p.m. Oct. 25. For ticket information
go to: bampfa.berkeley.edu/taishogala.
The Modern Girl in East Asia, a panel discussion on the role of
the Modern Girl, a motif that figures prominently in the Taisho
Chic exhibition, in understanding the cultural and historical moment
of Japan's embrace of Western modernism in the 1920s and '30s. Sunday,
2 p.m. Nov. 13. Guided tours of the exhibition are available at
12:15 and 5:30 p.m. Thursdays and 2 p.m. Sundays at the Berkeley
Art Museum, 2626 Bancroft Way, , Berkeley. (510) 642-0808.
For more information on these and other events, go to www.