I am passionate on a cellular level for the Chrysler Building in New York; I love you, I cannot resist you. Art deco is as alluring as a dapper villain. Deco has no enemies, no politics, no ethics, no manifestos, not even a united school of makers, all of which is why art history has never taken it seriously, and all of which makes it fascinating. Its streamlined, diamantine appearance is adaptable by all comers: rapacious capitalists, jazz players, proto-feminists. It gleams, glows, and glimmers. And now that examples of that naked, forceful exuberance created in Japan in the years leading up to war are paying their first visit to the victorious enemy country 70 years later, it's a major, marvelous, vaguely uneasy event. You will love it; you will not be able to resist it.
War is the backdrop, but Deco Japan: Shaping Art and Culture, 1920–1945 is summering in leafy, bucolic Volunteer Park, where Seattle Asian Art Museum physically nestles Japanese deco in a sisterly embrace. SAAM's 1933 building is a deco gem, designed to provide pleasure in every respect, from the ornate aluminum grills on the doors to the air ducts and light fixtures outside the bathrooms, all veiny marble and shiny gilt in between. It is an American couple named Robert and Mary who brought together Deco Japan, which represents most of their collection of around two hundred paintings, sculptures, woodblock prints, home furnishings, graphic designs, and pieces of clothing. Robert Levenson is an anesthesiologist; anesthesia knocks you out while you're still breathing, too.
When Levenson began collecting this stuff, nobody wanted it. Levenson was told it didn't exist, but he persisted because he'd glimpsed catalogs from a 1930s exhibition at the Toledo Museum of Art, of all places. With no clearinghouses to turn to, Levenson scouted out and went through four dozen dealers. Asking for interwar material once, he was actually chased out of a Kyoto antique shop. There is no pride in the militarism of a lost war, and anyway, of far greater value in Japan than deco are objects rooted to the heritage developed during Japan's 200 years of self-enforced seclusion, which gives Japan its ongoing distinctiveness. By comparison, deco is alien-smeared and brief. Even the director of the first venue where Deco Japan appeared, New York's Japan Society in 2012, said that until Deco Japan, he'd assumed Japanese art had basically gone dark between 1910 and the anime pop of the 1990s.
Levenson fell in love with deco because he lives in Miami, the American deco outpost. Miami's deco was the climax of a building boom serving a young and rapidly growing city in the 1910s and '20s; Japanese deco came from a building boom, too, necessitated by the deadly earthquake that leveled Tokyo and Yokohama in 1923. New buildings should be modern, leaders decided, and after a massively popular 1925 exposition of fresh styles in Paris, modern meant deco. It also meant Florida. The hottest dance hall in interwar Tokyo was called The Florida. In Deco Japan, there are striking paintings and prints of noodly, Isadora Duncan–like modern dancers, and one behind-the-scenes black-and-white photograph from 1935, by Hamaya Hiroshi, of an actual dancer at The Florida—a Japanese flapper, or "moga"—wearing a slinky backless gown and applying her makeup. The Florida's dressing rooms were Hollywood swank: chrome fixtures, checkered floors, vast mirrors.
European and American deco are well-known and still imitated in design for everything from cars to bars. That Japanese deco was buried for 70 years is ironic since the mania for "exotic" cultures—Japan, Egypt, and China in particular—was the inspiration for the look of international deco. Deco was promiscuous. In Japan, artists and craftspeople adapted traditional motifs like dragon and crane to modern styles, streamlining them and lighting them up with vivid color, gold, and silver. Nakamura Kenji cast origami cranes in silver and gilt silver, turning paper into knifelike edges. Those were edgy home decor. An edgy party dress: a gray kimono decorated on its back with a scene of skyscrapers, floating bills of Japanese and German money, and hovering, insectlike airplanes with furious propellers.
Deco Japan is organized by theme, but after taking the show in that way, I found myself happily meandering back and forth in the great maze of high, low, East, West, past, future. There were pissed-looking, aerodynamic bronze phoenixes and flying fish, ferocious soldiers poised to attack. Glossy white tiger-dragon creatures wearing machine-armor skins also wear the expressions of sated torturers, and they are pure pleasure to look at. A red lacquer box commemorating the conquer of New Guinea is a Japanese take on the native New Guinean bird of paradise. We'll take your symbols, too, thanks. A fierce, rectilinear bronze dragon was meant to stir nationalist sentiment against the Chinese. Titled Deluded Demons Run Away, it was made in 1938, months after Japan perpetrated the Rape of Nanking. Yikes.
But plenty of the material is placid. There's a raft of stupendously refined abstract glassware, ceramics, and jewelry. A serene, huge painting by Enomoto Chikatoshi pictures a young woman gazing at fish during an aquarium visit, practicing a new form of leisure. Her environment is dominated by watery celadon, that gentlest of greens used in traditional Chinese ceramics.
"Ero-guro-nansensu," or "erotic grotesque nonsense," was the fantastic term applied to the popular culture of the drinking, dancing, smoking, modern woman. You see it in a sexy ad for a kick-line performance with text parodying the parliament. Or a portrait of a soused woman, eyes swimming while come-hithering, by Kobayakawa Kiyoshi. The artwork that stands out maybe the most in Deco Japan is a double nude painted on a paper screen, immediately reminiscent of Manet's famous portrait of a tough prostitute and her servant. Incredibly, the artist is unknown. But the painting is as sensational as Manet's Olympia, as simultaneously ancient and modern, and as nakedly unconcerned with notions of utopia. That last one may be the most deco trait of all.