Preparing to go out: the story of Japanese Modernism

Words by Meg Hill

The National Gallery of Victoria’s (NGV) free-entry art spaces are now showing the major new exhibition Japanese Modernism.

The exclusive new exhibition will run until October 4 and showcases more than 190 multi-disciplinary works – Asian art deco paintings, prints, design and fashion – created during the first half of the 20th century.

NGV director Tony Ellwood AM said the show was the culmination of five years of collection at the gallery.

“Japanese Modernism offers exclusive insight into an era of Japanese art that is yet to be widely discovered by Australian audiences,” he said.

“With all of these works being exhibited in Australia for the first time, this vibrant collection of modernism captures the spirit of a rapidly evolving country and its exuberant youth.”

The period was culturally formative in Japan, situated between the 1923 Kanto earthquake and the devastation of World War II.

Japan underwent major redevelopment in the 1920s and ‘30s and its cities were filled with department stores, cafes, teahouses, movie theatres, ballroom dance halls and modern transportation.

With an increase in international travel, the influence of new technologies from abroad and a lively consumer culture took hold of the country.

In Tokyo, the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Imperial Hotel – which survived the devastation of the Kanto earthquake – provided the backdrop for the reconstruction of a modern capital that delivered a new-found sense of optimism to its younger generation.

It filtered into to the art world as a juxtaposition between traditional Japanese motifs and modern designs.

The exhibition focuses on work by exceptional, but under-recognised, women artists, leading avant-garde designers and illustrators.

Taniguchi Fumie’s trailblazing 1935 work Preparaing to go out (Yosoou hibobito) is a highlight of the exhibition. Taking inspiration from the 17th century Matsuura screens, the artist created a large sixfold screen capturing changing attitudes towards women, consumerism and fashion.

Fumie’s burgeoning career was cut short after she evacuated to the countryside to escape the final bombing raids of World War II. Leaving Japan in the early 1950s, she was never known to paint again.

The period saw mass migration from the country and the city, women moving into secure jobs and increased freedom in lifestyle, and the transformation of social norms. Artworks from the time – like the featured Tea and coffee salon, Sabō 1939 by Saeki Shunkō and Waiting for Makeup 1938 by Negishi Ayako – captured the self-assured, fashionable women of the modern era.

The exhibition’s fashion showcase includes playfully designed kimonos and accessories embracing art nouveau and art deco design elements. Interior designers are presented across beautifully crafted glassware, lacquerware and bronzeware.

More than 100 pieces of Japanese cut glass, with geometric and nature motifs inspired by traditional Japanese design, are on display.

Japanese Modernism will be on display at NGV International until October 4, 2020. Entry is free. For more visit

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