Japanese art deco — what in the world could that be?
This is not a unique question. As an exhibition of Japanese art deco objects has traveled around the country during the past year, this has been the regular response. And that’s what Robert Levenson heard when he began searching for Japanese art deco two decades ago.
“We were told it didn’t exist,” says Levenson, a retired anesthesiologist who has put together a definitive collection of Japanese art deco works. The exhibition Japan and the Jazz Age, drawn from the Robert and Mary Levenson collection, opens at the Columbia Museum of Art on Friday.
The exhibition (organized by Art Services International) is made up of 130 works ranging from posters and paintings to kimonos, vases, boxes, pieces of jewelry and knick-knacks showing how between 1920 and World War II, a love of art deco swept the Land of the Rising Sun. It reveals that the clean lines of deco and traditional Japanese arts and crafts are not such odd companions.
Art deco is a catchall term that refers to the use of stylized design and decoration — sometimes exaggerated and showy, other times stripped down and abstracted — on buildings, furniture and decorative objects, or even trains, planes and automobiles. The style originated in France in the 1920s and became popular throughout Europe and the United States in the 1930s. Contrasting deco styles can be found close to the museum on Main Street at the Kress building, the Nickelodeon Theatre and the Tapp’s Arts Center.
Levenson, who had long been collecting Japanese objects, was living in Miami, a city with a strong deco heritage, which got him thinking: “I wonder if the Japanese did anything like this.”
As he asked people in the art world, he was repeatedly told in no uncertain terms, “No.” But when he discovered a Japanese deco vase at an art and antique show, he knew he was on to something.
“These things don’t exist in a vacuum,” Levenson says. “Deco is a total and universal style that exists in art, in buildings, in clothing — so I knew other things had to be out there. But when I started, there was so little information about it.”
The search wasn’t easy.
“I pestered a lot of dealers who would finally say ‘Alright, I’ll look for it,’” he says. “I counted it up one day and these pieces came through four dozen different dealers.”
While the show doesn’t have an immediate popular appeal, its uniqueness should be a draw.
“It’s exciting when you have an exhibition that taps into a story people are not familiar with,” says Victoria Cooke, a curator at the Columbia Museum overseeing the show. “These are also very approachable objects — things people would have in their homes — and there is so much variety.”
If bewilderment has been the first reaction to “Japanese art deco,” the second has been public and critical embrace.
When the exhibition was at the Japan Society in New York last year, one writer called it “unquestionably the most important exhibit in New York City right now.”
Levenson, who lives in Clearwater, Fla., relishes his memory of seeing the exhibition there.
“Walking through the gallery, I’d hear Japanese people saying to one another, ‘I didn’t know we did this.’”
Japan and the Jazz Age can be seen Friday through April 20.
The Columbia Museum of Art is at 1515 Main Street. Admission is $12 for adults; $10 for seniors and military; and $5 for students. Call 799-2810 or visit columbiamuseum.org for more information.
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