From floor-to-ceiling, the walls at the Gallery of Honour at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum are papered in a dense array of characters, animals, landscapes, and energetic shapes that seem to tumble from their compositions. They envelop you in a kaleidoscope of color: vivid patterns splash out from every direction, made up of icy blues, muted pinks, lush greens, vibrant yellows. You can see where this show, “Colorful Japan,” get its name.
The exhibition features 226 Japanese posters from the 1930s to the present day, a selection from the Stedelijk’s immense collection of 800 Japanese designs, the largest collection of its kind in Europe. The show is a tribute to the Japanese graphic designer Shigeru Watano, who lived in The Netherlands and died in 2012. Watano was a crucial partner to the Stedelijk, helping the museum acquire its vast collection having arrived in Holland in the ’60s. “He was interested in playing the role of an ambassador of Japanese design in The Netherlands, and vice versa,” says the exhibition’s curator, Carolien Glazenburg.
The works on display are by designers such as Kazumasa Nagai, Ikko Tanaka, Yusaku Kamekura, Mitsuo Katsui, and more. One entire wall devoted exclusively to Tadanori Yokoo—who held his first European exhibition at the Stedelijk in 1974. Glazenburg explains that it was in the early 20th century that the poster form first became used for advertising in Japan. “Japan had been closed off from the West completely until the Meiji era [1868-1912], so it ended its isolation policy in the latter half of the 19th century,” she says. “During the early 20th century, artists and designers started to travel to Europe; they saw the Bauhaus in Germany, or they travelled to Moscow and saw what the Constructivists were doing. It was then that posters became used for advertising.”
The show traces different styles and approaches to the art form taken by Japanese graphic designers throughout the 20th century. Characters often plan an important role, figuring as both text and decoration, and they’re often either positioned horizontally (following the European style) or vertically (the traditional Japanese style). Here, Glazenburg takes us through a number of the colorful designs on display.
Image left: Tadanori Yokoo, Amazo, 1989. Collection Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam