Speaker Spotlight: Kendall Brown’s Delirious Japan

Dr. Kendall H. Brown is Professor of Asian Art History in the School of Art at California State University Long Beach. He received BA and MA degrees in history and art history from the University of California, Berkeley and a Ph.D. in art history from Yale University. Dr. Brown publishes actively in several areas of Japanese art, such as Japanese paintings and woodblock prints.

Brown has curated or contributed to exhibitions for museums across the country, including our exhibition, Deco Japan: Shaping Art and Culture, 1920–1945.

 How long ago did you begin the curation process for Deco Japan: Shaping Art and Culture, 1920–1945?

A: I first saw the Levenson collection on a trip to Florida in February 2005, a dozen years before the Morikami opening. I started working closely with Bob Levenson in 2009, conceptualizing the thematic categories of the exhibition so he could collect works that would bolster these areas.

 What inspired you to curate this exhibition?

A: I was struck by the great quality of the work, the diversity of media, the breadth and depth of social themes (from urban cosmopolitanism to nationalist militarism, and the fact that the material had been so little studied or exhibited).

Artist unknown
Postcard for Fifth Anniversary of the Founding of the Manchu Imperial Postal Service, 1937
Color lithograph, inks on coated card stock
14 x 9 cm
Saitō Kazō (1887–1955)
Songbook for “Song of the Era of Erotic Feelings”
Color lithograph, inks on paper
26.5 x 38 cm
Satomi Munetsugu (1904–1996)
Poster for Japan, Japanese Government Railways, 1937
Color lithograph, inks on paper
99 x 63.5 cm

 How do you feel Japanese Art Deco has influenced art and culture today?

A: The combination of great design with mass-produced objects reached new heights in the Deco period between WWI and WWII, and this continues to be a characteristic of Japan’s sophisticated consumer society.

The work of design house Nendo exemplifies Japan’s elevated consumer culture.

 What is your favorite piece from Deco Japan?

A: It is very hard to pick a favorite, but I am most intrigued by the works (from cigarette packs to spectacular lacquer boxes) that merge the elegance of the Deco style, the refinement of Japanese craft technique, and the vigor of Japan’s war-era ideology.

Artists Unknown
Set of eight matchbox labels:
TOP ROW, LEFT TO RIGHT: Bar Komachi, Café Sagami, Café Shōwa
MIDDLE ROW: Oraga Ginza, Café Sansui, Café Paurista 
BOTTOM ROW: Café Ichimaru, Café Gurobu, c. 1930s
Color lithographs, ink on paper
Each 5.4 x 3.5 cm
Tsuishu Yōzei (1880–1952)
Tobacco Box and Tray with Egyptian Motifs, 1916 or 1928
Lacquered wood
Box: 6 x 10.5 x 12.7; Tray: 1.9 x 14.1 x 16.8

 Who is your favorite artist featured in the exhibition?

A: I find myself wanting to know more about the designer Saito Kazo, who designed everything from textiles and furniture to sheet music covers. He studied art and music, wrote song lyrics, and is only recently being “rediscovered.” His song book cover designs are often cited by the public as favorite works–and I agree.

 Why do you feel it is important for people to experience Deco Japan?

A: We so often associate Japanese culture either with ancient Buddhist art or with contemporary cyber culture, it is important for people to experience the rich, diverse, and even contradictory values of Japanese culture during the middle of the 20th century.

 What is your feeling on Morikami being the last leg of this exhibition’s tour?

A: Given that the Levenson collection is based in Florida, it is wonderful for the exhibition to conclude in the state. In addition, given the great association of Deco with Miami Beach, a Japanese-focused venue in South Florida is a fitting culmination of the exhibition tour.

South Florida’s Art Deco connection creates an appropriate setting for the exhibition’s final run.

 On February 24th, you will be joining us for a lecture titled Delirious Japan: Art Deco in the Imperial Era. What can attendees expect to learn during your talk?

A: People at my lecture will be pulled into a period of Japanese history where citizens felt themselves pulled between desires to be international cosmopolites and patriotic Japanese, between progressives living in a consciously “modern” world and inheritors of a venerable cultural heritage. Attendees will also learn about examples of Japanese Art Deco that is still available for purchasing.

 Tell us a little about the background of your word choice for the title of this lecture. Why “Delirious?”

A: I chose the word “delirious” to suggest the kind of wild, even feverish, desires of many Japanese from the late 1920s into the early 1940s to create a powerful new empire that would fuse East and West, past and present, into an era limited only by the imagination.

 Who in the realm of art and history inspires you, and why?

A: I am inspired by persons who perfect their craft, and by those who go against the grain of their era.

 What other aspects of Asian art and history interest you, and why?

A: I have very diverse interests in Asian art, and am particularly fascinated by cultural diaspora, expressed in phenomena like Japanese gardens built outside Japan, or American artists who work in Japan in “Japanese” media like woodblock printing.

 Do you have other projects you are currently working on?

A: One of my current projects is a survey of Japanese sheet music cover illustrations–a project that has grown out of those objects in the Deco Japan exhibition.

Saitō Kazō (1887–1955)
Songbook for “Song of Miss Nippon”, 1930
Color lithograph, inks on paper
26.5 x 19 cm
Saitō Kazō (1887–1955)
Songbook for the “Heart of the Modern Girl”, 1930
Color lithograph, inks on paper
26.5 x 19 cm
Saitō Kazō
Songbook for “In Praise of Women B” from the series “Nikkatsu Victor Harmonica Sheet Music”, 1930
Color lithograph, inks on paper
27 x 18.9 cm

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