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Sunday, Feb. 13, 2000

At the cultural crossroads of art


Paris in the '20s, a journey on the Orient Express: "Art Deco and the Orient," now at the Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum, conjures up the Jazz Age, when everything from ocean liners to coffee cups was touched by the glamour of Art Deco.

The Teien Art Museum building was originally the residence of Prince and Princess Asaka, and was completed in 1933. While visiting Paris, the young couple had been so impressed with the new designs that they decided to build an ultramodern home in Tokyo.

The designer was Henri Rapin, who worked with both Japanese and French artists to produce the harmonious interior, one of the great triumphs of Art Deco design. A great painting appears around the bend of a '30s staircase, a sleek jaguar stalks along a library shelf, a flapper preens by a mirror in the hall. Rene Lalique designed the angels that hover in the vestibule. (Since Rapin did not travel to Japan, Princess Asaka corresponded with him in French. How everyone would have loved a fax machine!)

Art Deco swept from Paris to America and on to Asia, transforming maharajahs' palaces in India, streets in Shanghai and even the workshops of Kyoto -- then suddenly, like a mysterious heroine in an Agatha Christie novel, the style disappeared, and the rationalist Bauhaus movement came to the fore. World War II banished frivolity, and postwar designers revered functionality.

Back in 1925, though, at the pivotal "Exposition des Art Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes," the romance between art and industry was blooming. The exhibition poster says it all: great plumes of black smoke pour out of factory chimneys and form into flowers.

"Art Deco and the Orient" has a broad sweep, including examples of "pure" Art Deco, Japanese-influenced designs, the work of Japanese artists in Paris and at home, and advertising posters and photographs from China and India. The European and Japanese objects, however, provide the major themes.

One aim of the movement was to bring art into the modern lifestyle, and the vases by Rene Buthaud are clearly linked to the cubist art of Matisse and Picasso. Buthaud, a respected artist in his own right, designed wares for the Printemps department stores.

Similarly, Rene Lalique transformed himself from an exclusive jeweler to a mass-market glassmaker in the 1920s. With the high prices commanded by pre-war Lalique items today, it's easy to forget that his perfume bottles and compacts were everyday accessories for stylish Parisians just 70 years ago.

Here, three Lalique vases shimmer with goldfish in shades of coral, pearl and amber. They date from 1924, and recall the earlier fascination with Japan and the aesthetics of Art Nouveau, but the clear crystal glassware produced a few years later shows the full flowering of Art Deco.

"Lalique was working on chandeliers for the Prince's residence at that time," explains Machiko Takanami, curator at the Teien, "and the crystal drops were inspired by Oriental pearls."

The lacquer in the exhibition is outstanding. A gorgeous Oriental landscape panel by Jean Dunand is a counterpoint to the dramatic gold and black screen by Japanese master Katsu Hamanaka, a geometric design with embossed maple leaves scattered through the gold.

The rhythms of Art Deco struck a very responsive chord in the Japanese mind. Almost every distinctive note of the movement has an affinity with Japanese tradition: the use of flat graphic planes, the abstract depiction of the natural world and the importance of line. Perhaps the only exception is the European use of symmetry, but both similarities and differences excited Japanese artists in the 1920s. They devoured the images in the new color magazines, and as many as 500 made a pilgrimage to France.

Dunand, the French lacquer artist, studied with Seizo Sugawara in Paris, as did Hamanaka. The freedom to travel and exchange ideas led to a greater understanding of Japanese arts in Europe, and vice versa. While most early fans of Oriental art were happy to admire the cherry blossoms by the wayside, the next generation of Western artists journeyed to its heart.

In Paris, ideas raced from salon to theater to fashion house and back again. The fashion plates show Parisian ladies dripping with elegance, making one long to wear hats and stoles! Some designers simply copied images from Vogue for publishers in Tokyo, but poet and dandy Yumeji Takehisa used the wistful features of his lover in a style reminiscent of ukiyo-e. Koji Fukiya captures the buzz of the metropolis in his snappy illustrations but also the delicacy of Japanese beauties dressed in the moga ("modern girl") look.

The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 razed large areas of Tokyo and new landmarks such as the Diet building and Ginza department stores were built in Japanese Art Deco style. Harue Koga's surrealist cityscape of 1930 is an optimistic image of the new metropolis.

The nihonga paintings of "gay young things" strolling in the park or playing with yo-yos are very charming, reflecting the rise of the urban middle class. Although the subject matter breaks with the past, the artist Chikatoshi Enomoto has a traditional fascination for depicting the girls' soft hair and gauzy clothes. Chou Ota's painting of a girl being vaccinated is a consciously modern subject handled with great skill. The strong composition and drape of her kimono makes the girl's flesh appear more delicate, and the glimpse of pink lace framing her arm is a tender touch.

Noritake's cheerful china for the American market is an interesting contrast to the more subtle designs by Okura, intended for domestic consumption. In addition there are jazzy kimonos and accessories, and a room full of vases, clocks and embroideries. The screen embroidered with fish by Keishun Kishimoto is a great swirl of color; the weft threads of the canvas have been parted at random to suggest the movement of the sea. Given Japan's decorative tradition, it's not surprising that Kyoto artisans were inspired anew to combine beauty and use.

Art Deco was a pinnacle of creative exchange between East and West, so it is ironic that the movement perished in the winds of war. Architecture in the 1980s saw a revival of interest but, unlike the song thrush in the poem, we can never "recapture that first, fine careless rapture."

Never mind, the plum blossoms are out in the Teien garden, and we can find another song.

"Art Deco and the Orient" is at Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum, (03) 3443-0201, until March 21 (closed second and fourth Wednesdays).


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