Taisho Artwork: The First Generation of Modern Japan

The Meiji Restoration, started in 1868 entered Japan into the modern world. The feudal past was left behind and a new international prerogative with democratic views was born. This gigantic shift in political conditions had a tremendous effect on all life, including the arts, literature, science, business, and education. What’s interesting however, is that we do not fully see these changes fulfilled until the Taisho era (1912 to 1926). Overthrowing the Tokugawa shogunate was a hard won revolution which set about social reforms which would only truly be realized by the next generation. These children of the Meiji Revolution, who grew to maturity in the Taisho period, would be the ones to live the life that their parents had only dreamt of.

A major shift in attitudes which effected every aspect of life, was the new respect and encouragement of individuality. Education had been made compulsory in the Meiji Period, which gave this new generation a broader outlook and also more of an open-minded perspective. New social customs like visiting coffee houses, watching movies, and going to dance halls made it a fun time for the moga (modern girls) and mobo (modern boys).

In the art world, we see a true blossoming of a wide variety of styles which were imported from overseas and a fusion of these new styles with traditional Japanese elements. With an educated middle class and greater means of communication, the influx of international news and media inspired consumers and artists alike. In varying degrees, the art movements of art deco, art nouveau, abstraction, impressionism, and expressionism, among others, influenced different modes of art.

Woodblock Prints & Paintings

Nowhere can we see such a drastic change in styles as we see in the woodblock prints of this period. The new emphasis on individual style brought about the shin-hanga and sosaku hanga genres.

Shin-Hanga: New Prints

The shin-hanga movement was an interesting mix of traditional Japanese woodblock printing methods and artwork by contemporary artists. The war-time prints of the Meiji period depicting the Russo-Japanese battles received a very limited amount of success so the shin-hanga movement served to reinvigorate the woodblock printing medium. These “new prints” used much of Western perspective and the woodblock print publisher also worked much more closely with the artist, thereby creating a print which more accurately resembles the artist’s original intent. Another difference of the shin-hanga movement was its focus on limiting the number of prints produced. In the ukiyo-e tradition, the idea of creating a limited edition was simply unheard of. The most famous artists of this movement were Hashiguchi Goyo, Kawase Hasui, Ito Shinsui, Ishiwata Koitsu, and a small but influential group of foreign artists working in the Japanese manner such as Charles W. Bartlett and Lillian Miller.

Sosaku Hanga:Creative Prints

Sosaku hanga was a distinct departure from the traditional woodblock print technique because artists of this movement believed in executing each step of the printing process themselves. With such an individualized method of printing, many artists of this type created extremely stylized, eclectic, and innovative works which simply had not been seen before. Sosaku hanga artists were influenced by a wide variety of international art movements and were a diverse group which were held together only by their strong beliefs in individuality. This was a new level of self-expression and marked a great change in social attitudes as well as art. Of this group, many will recognize the work of Yoshitoshi Mori, Koshiro Onchi, and Shiko Munakata whose personal styles retain an originality even in the 21st century.

Most painters of this time were utilizing the Western concept of perspective but still depicted traditional subject matter. However, European dress, the appearance of telephone poles, electric lighting, and other Western introductions are a clear indication of the changing times. In woodblock prints and painting, the traditional subject of bijinga (beautiful women) extended to the fashionable class of young women called Moga. These images are romantic in their visions of beauty and are not as static as the traditional manner of bijinga.

There was a small but important group of avant-garde painters during this period who experimented with the many different styles they saw in publications from Europe and America. Works by Yorozu Tetsugoro, Kishida Ryusei, and Koide Narashige were a startling contrast to the Japanese aesthetic because their work was largely influenced by the various international styles of Cubism, Expressionism, and Impressionism. The distorted views in their paintings were much too advanced for the general public to appreciate but their courage to extend the limits of Japanese painting set the foundation for the following generations of painters.

Porcelain and Ceramics

Since 1853, when Admiral Perry adventured into Tokyo Bay and broke Japan’s isolation, the country had enjoyed a prospering porcelain export business. As the years progressed, Japanese kilns and porcelain factories produced a large quantity of designs specifically made for the Western market. Like many businesses, the scientific and industrial skills of the West were swiftly adopted to enhance production and range. The designs popular during the Taisho period mark a shift in domestic tastes as Japanese themselves desired patterns which were a combination of occidental and asian aesthetics. The art deco and art nouveau styles proved especially admired by the modern public.

For mass produced pieces, the mark of “Nippon” will identify ceramic and porcelain pieces from the period 1910 to 1921. In 1921, U.S. import laws were altered to require pieces to be marked “Japan” or “Made in Japan”. Of the many manufacturers active during this term, Noritake was among the most popular and most successful companies who have retained their strength.

Although factory ware like satsuma, kutani, and imari remained popular during this time, the new “studio pottery” pursued a different objective. Individual artists of this period were inspired to experiment with the new techniques recently developed and produced a number of artful combinations. Instead of creating designs to be mass produced and exported or sold in large numbers, the studio potters put artistic merit as a first priority. An outstanding artist of this era, Makuzu Kozan is noted to have “stretch[ed] the perceived limits of the medium. He is to be admired for developing new glazes and techniques and for successfully adapting paintings to ceramics in a new and dramatic way”.

Noritake serving dish for sandwiches, circa 1920. Noritake was the largest exporter of porcelain to the United States during the Taisho period. The art deco design shows their attunement to modern and Western tastes. Photograph courtesy of Garakuta-Do.

A set of Noritake ashtrays, circa 1920. Lusterware was a beautifully innovative glaze that remains very collectible today. Photograph courtesy of Garakuta-Do

Decorative and Personal Accessories

Cosmetics and tobacco paraphernalia were only some of the personal accessories which had been introduced by Westerners in Japan. Fashionable jewelry, apparel, and watches were just a few of the new innovations to Japan which lent themselves to foreign designs.

Displaced craftsmen like the Japanese metalworkers who used to create sword fittings and accoutrements for the samurai were now without a market for their skills. Since the carrying of swords had been abolished in the Meiji era, these metal smiths applied their skills to making highly refined jewelry, purse clasps, and other accessories that could be used by the middle class. The result was a sudden surge in secular sculpture and gorgeous jewelry made in the Japanese and Western styles.

Everyday household items like the hibachi (coal brazier), tansu (chests), and lamps were largely influenced by international tastes. The introduction of electricity in the Taisho period played a factor as people tried to keep up with modern technology. For example, the street lamps in the popular Ginza district were electrified with beautiful art nouveau designs to illuminate the new streetcars.

Textiles

Perhaps in this area alone we can see best the mood of the Taisho period. Along with cultural changes, very significant technological and economic changes heralded a new fashion. Since Japan embraced Western methods and styles so quickly, we see a fascinating transition between traditional kimonos and Western clothing in the Taisho era.

During the later Meiji Period, the Japanese textile industry took its first steps towards modernization and mechanization. By Taisho times, incredibly efficient looms and beautifully vibrant chemical dyes allowed silk and kimono merchants to create textiles which were quickly and inexpensively mass produced. With this new freedom came more exuberant and colorful textile designs that took advantage of the new methods. In contrast to the kimonos of the past, in which casual wear usually sported small-scale patterns and rather subdued colors, the Taisho kimonos were daring combinations of bright colors and large, bold designs.

These relatively wild designs reflected the high spirits of the Japanese economic boom which began during the first World War. Bright colors and animated designs mirrored the busy lifestyle and also allowed fashion to be an extension of a person’s self-expression. Western motifs along with strong influences from the art deco and art nouveau movements make this period of textile design particularly easy to distinguish.

The artwork of 1912 to 1926 in Japan was a short but important transition from the very traditional to the modern. The Showa period that follows the Taisho saw Japan mature into a truly cosmopolitan nation. The designs and work that emerged during the Taisho ranged from romantic beauty to sometimes humorous juxtapositions. The high spirits and amount of artistic play involved have made these pieces a fascinating and beautiful period of Japanese art.