Deco Japan: Shaping Art and Culture, 1920-1945

In conjunction with the Museum of Art’s exhibition “Deco Japan: Shaping Art and Culture,” 1920-1941, Kendall Brown from California State University Long Beach discussed Japan’s unique history and cosmopolitanism depicted in the exhibition’s nearly 200 works.

PROVO, Utah (February 26, 2015)— BYU’s Museum of Art is hosting Deco Japan, the first exhibition dedicated to Japanese Art Deco shown outside Tokyo. The exhibition has been touring since 2012 and is in its ninth run.

The “art deco” movement, which was a style that initially emerged in France after the First World War, boomed internationally in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. The character of art deco expresses the collision of the traditional with the modern, the natural and the mechanic, and it sports bold geometric shapes and ornamentation and rich colors.


According to Kendall Brown, a Japanese art expert and professor of Asian art history at California State University Long Beach, Western interest in Japanese art has developed and transformed within the past century. Regarding Japanese art, he said: “About twenty years ago, we began to explore the post-war avant-garde. We’ve embraced the tourist-export art, the folk art,” Brown said. However, according to Brown some aspects of the Japanese art deco movement “got left out of history.” Many academics – Brown and his teachers included – followed what already written on the subject, and the study of Japanese art deco was largely underdeveloped until just recently.

Though many art historians and scholars doubted the significance of Japanese deco art, Brown said, “As a scholar, I so often learn from museums and collectors – people who start from the ground up. They gather what’s there. They often gather what’s available at a reasonable cost, which aren’t the things in the canon.”

The exhibit began in that way, and because of its non-canonical origins, Deco Japan introduces something new into our conception of Japanese decorative arts in the last 120 years, Brown claimed.

According to Brown, “Deco is often talked about in terms of cosmopolitanism – the jazz age, the thin, urban veneer,” but Japanese art deco is more significant than simply a decorative, pretty style.

The exhibition depicts the complex social and cultural tensions in between 1925-1945, and it includes aesthetic decorative objects such as vases, boxes, and sculptures; kimonos and robes; paintings; sports medals; sheet music covers and postage stamps.

According to Brown, the pieces in the exhibition struggle between expressing traditional, natural motifs and progressive, modernist ideas. One kimono included in the exhibit shows traditional fishing boats floating under a modern city, as portrayed by cables of a suspension bridge, low arches and a roadway.


One significant theme throughout the exhibit is the emergence of “café culture” and “the modern girl.” Women are depicted in modern environments: at 1930s dance halls, in cafes, sipping alcoholic drinks and wearing makeup.

According to the MOA’s description of the exhibit, “In these pre-war and war eras, artists and patrons created a Japanese modernism that signaled simultaneously the nation’s unique history and its cosmopolitanism.”

Brown said that for viewers to appreciate the exhibit they must “think of deco broadly; explore it on your own terms.”

—Danielle Chelom Leavitt (B.A. Russian ’15)



The exhibition is drawn from The Levenson Collection and is organized and circulated by Art Services International, Alexandria, Virginia. Support has been provided by The Chisholm Foundation and the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation.