Monday, September 20, 2010

Calendar Girls - Taisho Chic

OK so when I was a little kid, whenever my parents went out of town to somewhere that had a Chinatown, or any kind of Asian groceries, they would have to do a little shopping to pick up those essentials like bags of dow see (fermented black beans) to eat with lobster tail, pickled vegetables to flavor pot roasts, gluten sheets for vegetarian monks food, or giant bags of dried shiitake mushrooms.  In addition to all these things,  they would also ALWAYS bring home a shiny new calendar, with pretty Asian girls smiling coyly out of it.  These calendars quite literally put a fresh face on the year to come.  And since they were hung in the kitchen, they seemed also to gleam with the promises of many delicious dinners to come.  (This certainly seems to be a theme for me, doesn't it?  Have you noticed?)

But NO!  We are not going to talk about food again this time.  This time we are going to talk about art.  And "commercial art" from early 20th century Japan.  Art made for the man on the street, vs. art made for the ruling classes.  Art which could be cheaply produced and marketed to the masses and which the refinement of block print processes particularly enabled.  Popular art that anticipated the calendar girls phenomenon that persists across many cultures, from my childhood kitchen to your garage today.  

The early Japanese block prints that we know became the fascination of the French Impressionists were considered by connoisseurs in Japan and beyond, for a very long time to be "cheap art" and ephemera.  The "floating world" prints called "Ukiyo-e" neverthelesss re-interpreted the "usual" motifs - copying subjects and themes from brush art of the same period 17th - 20th centuries. 

Taisho style, named for era of the Japanese Emperor who reigned between 1912-26 , began instead to incorporate the influence of Western styles both artistic, and in it's renderings, of "modern" ways of life.

These influences (including greater freedom for women, and improved civil rights and social equality)  apparently came on too fast and too strong for what

for so very very long, had been an insular and highly regimented feudal, and male dominated, society.

Ultimately, Japanese society could not withstand the pressure

of these new Western ideas, despite it's ability to so successfully esthetically integrate them into its decorative arts traditions.  Those social tensions, exacerbated by the Great Depression's impact on the Japanese economy and British and American military assertiveness in the Pacific, according to the authors of this beautiful book:

Taisho Chic, Japanese Modernity, Nostalgia and Deco, (published in conjunction with the contemporaneous exhibition at the Honolulu Academy of Art (link here) January - March 2002)

paved the way for "the ultranationalist ideology supporting Japan's wars from 1931 to 1945".

Most of the pieces in the show and shown in the book are part of the Academy's permanent collection.

Here's also a link to the Japan Times for an article about the show when it visited there.   I think it's all so pretty.  Do you?  


  1. Delightful post MP!
    Just love the journey you've taken us on here. Never have seen ones quite like the 2 beach inspired prints before though.
    Interesting reference to history ...makes one curious to know more!

  2. What a gorgeous post! Love all of the images - very inspiring this morning!

  3. I LOVE these!
    So soigne...and graceful or is that the same thing?
    Weren't you the clever duck to have such sophisticated taste early on!

  4. Beautiful pictures. It's a very interesting topic isn't it!

  5. Merci pour cette découverte de l'art japonais... Les images sont superbes. Je suis sensible à la beauté pure de la demoiselle qui se brosse les cheveux et la petite rigolotte en maillot de bain d'autrefois !
    J'ai un béguin pour le parapluie... j'adore les parapluies, de toutes sortes, de toutes les couleurs. Et j'en ai même un de ma peinture imprimée dessus, une geisha, à découvrir on my blog, si tu veux...
    Bonne soirée,