You don’t have to be a textile collector to appreciate “Fashioning Kimono: Art Deco and Modernism in Japan” now on view at The Memorial Art Gallery. Just develop a taste for the dramatic, graphic and colorful formal clothing that Japanese artisans have been creating for hundreds of years. Then again, you just might be interested in seeing how an Asian culture reflects on original European and American design.
The lucky people wearing these fashionable garments must have looked like walking paintings, or animated architecture – as the case may be. The argument for making a comparison with architecture comes from the title of this exhibition itself. Would you know what the defining characteristics of Art Deco look like? If it were not for buildings in our midst such as the Empire State Building or Radio City Music Hall in Manhattan ( and even some buildings in Rochester ) we wouldn’t have a clue.
The strongest, longest lasting impression we have of Modernism and of Art Deco is that of a streamlining, and simplification of design, and the banishment of embellishment or ornament. Looking at the Kimonos on view at the MAG, you see a sublime craftsmanship, a profound sense of graphic design, and mouth watering color in the best pieces on exhibit.
Bold red and electric blue identifies a great Kimono in the main gallery. A sumptious catalog identifies this costume ( item 77 with a “Wood Assembly” motif ) as “Early Showa period, 1930’s-1940’s made of silk crepe with hand tie-dyed warp threads”. There is no equivalent of these Kimonos in the west, yet I am reminded of the wearing blankets of the Navajo Indians in the late 19th and early 20th century that employ similar designs.
This exhibition also reminds me of the pioneering shows on view at the Japan Society over 20 years ago that sparked an interest in pattern painting. The objects in ” Fashioning Kimono..” are drawn from the Jeffrey Montgomery collection of Lugano, Switzerland – known as the most comprehensive collection of Japanese folk art outside of Japan.
Separate sections of the exhibit at the MAG are devoted to children’s kimonos ( look for the biplanes and battleships on the 1930’s boy’s kimono ) and mens ‘ and womens’ garments. Particularly striking are the hand painted men’s silk formal jackets with subdued color, the gigantic chrysanthemums on a women’s kimono of the late Meiji period, and the wisteria motif of the kimono on your right as you enter the exhibition.
How self-effacing this art form is – I leave without ever knowing who the artists were that created these eye catching, fetching costumes.