Deco the halls

Deco Japan at the Dayton Art Institute

By Joyell Nevins

Photo: Ban’ura Shōgo, “Box as a Cat (Neko no hako)”; c. 1930s


The Dayton Art Institute is making history in the Asian art scene. The museum is the only Midwest venue for the acclaimed “Deco Japan: Shaping Art and Culture, 1920-1945.” This exhibit is the first of its kind in the United States to explore the Art Deco movement specifically through Japanese eyes.

In a 1985 newsletter for the Art Deco Society of New York, Brian J. R. Blench described the Art Deco style as “for luxury and leisure, for comfort and conviviality. It is an exciting style and should, like the archetypal drink of the period, the cocktail, be enjoyed while it is still laughing at you.”

Yet the style was also representative of a world on fire – a world recovering from one war and heading into another one. In Japan, according to the Deco Japan exhibit, the country’s economy had given birth to a rising middle class and new wealth for those in the war industries. Tension was tightening between the people who “championed western liberalism” and those who “sought a restoration of Asian traditions.”

The Deco Japan exhibit premiered at the Japan Society Gallery in New York City in March 2012 to a sold-out crowd. Even though Dayton Art Institute Curator of Collections and Exhibitions Aimee Marcereau DeGalan was still curating at a university museum in Vermont when she saw the exhibit, she knew right away it would be perfect for Dayton.

“DAI has a very strong Asian collection, and they needed a big Asian show to complement that,” she said. “This exhibit is a great opportunity for Dayton in absence of having an Asian [art] curator.”

The term “Art Deco” was coined in 1926 from an exhibition in Paris. The Art Deco Society of New York notes the style is a combination of the highly colorful and playful geometric style that ruled those post-World War I Paris salons with chevrons, arcs, sunbursts, maidens, fountains and floral abstractions, and the crisp angular patterns associated with American modernistic impulses, including Zigzag, jazz-age, machine-age and streamlined aesthetics. These influences came together to replace the standard motifs of bygone eras, such as entablatures, columns, flying buttresses, gargoyles and architraves.

Deco became a worldwide phenomenon, Marcereau DeGalan said, with ripples throughout the world. In Japan, those ripples mirrored complex social and cultural tensions in the Taishō and early Shōwa epochs from 1912-1945. According to the exhibit’s fact sheet, “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.”

The modern girl, called “moga” in Japanese, similar to the flapper in America, became an icon of undermining the status quo and representing the rise of glamour and power in a lower class.

According to an essay in the exhibition catalogue, “The compelling contradictions of the age are best seen in the Art Deco style, where a facade of elegance parallels a totalitarian gravity, and the theme of national supremacy coexists with that of the alluring café waitress.”

A diverse collection

One of the outstanding features of this Deco Japan exhibit is the wide range of items included in it.

“That’s what I noticed right away – the diversity,” Marcereau DeGalan said.

Professor of Asian Art History Kendall Brown concurred. “For me, the most interesting thing about the Deco Japan exhibition is the diversity of the material,” he said. “Physically, we move from tiny match book covers to large paintings. In media, we move from paper to silk to lacquer to glass to metal and so on. Thematically, the diverse subjects that define the era include fashionable women as well as militarism.”

Brown is a professor of Japanese Art History at California State University. He has developed multiple exhibits of 20th century Japanese art, from Los Angeles to Boston, but never anything this large in scope.

The five-part exhibit includes sculptures, ceramics, lacquer, glass, wood furniture, jewelry, textiles, graphic designs on paper, paintings and woodblock prints. Attendees can see deco-style paintings of the moga, brightly colored home objects, large wall screens covered in gilt and sculptures of dragons and lions.

“We have things made for the public space of the street, for the home, for the human body and for the art museum,” Brown said.

Marcereau DeGalan added, “People will be surprised at the wide range of objects they’ll see. There is something for everybody here.”

All the pieces come from the private collection of Robert and Mary Levenson of Clearwater, Florida. According to the Deco Japan collector’s preface, when the Levensons first became interested in collecting Japanese Art Deco, they encountered “a problem: it didn’t exist – or so Robert was told repeatedly by multiple dealers of both Japanese art and Art Deco.”

The Levensons did not agree and now have more than 200 works to show that Art Deco thrived, and it thrived in Japan.

“The heroes of this story … are the extraordinary Japanese artists and craftsmen who worked under extremely difficult conditions in this era,” the Levensons wrote. “Some are well known and have been named Living National Treasures. Others remain obscure or unidentified. With inspiration, energy and creativity, they produced beautiful works of art in synchrony with, but generally unknown to, their Western peers. We hope that you will find Japan’s embrace of the art deco mode and mind-set as engaging, endearing and remarkable as we have.”

Deco Japan: Shaping Art and Culture, 1920-1945 is organized and circulated by Art Services International of Alexandria, Virginia. It is accompanied by a Deco in Dayton exhibit, showing how Art Deco also influenced design in our area.

Deco Japan runs from Nov. 15 to Jan. 25, with a lecture by Professor Kendall Brown at 1 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 12. The Dayton Art Institute is located at 456 Belmonte Park North in Dayton. It is open from 11 a.m.-8 p.m. on Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m.- 5 p.m. on Saturday and noon-5 p.m. on Sunday. For more information, please call 937.223.4ART (4278) or visit

Reach DCP freelance writer Joyell Nevins at

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Joyell believes in the power of the written word, a good cup of coffee, and sometimes, the need for a hug (please, no Tommy Boy references). Follow her on her blog “Small World, Big God” at or reach her at

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