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The Kaleidoscopic Colors and Unique Visual Sensibility of Japanese Posters

A show at the Stedelijk Museum celebrates Japanese graphic design from the 1930s to today

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

Ryuichi Yamashiro

Forest, 1954

“After 1945, when Japan was occupied by the U.S., many posters only featured Roman type. It was a challenge to print Japanese characters onto posters, because there are over 4,000 of them. Several designers felt that they didn’t want to throw away the country’s past by only using Roman type though, and they were intent on integrating Japanese characters into their poster designs. 

“This poster by Ryuichi Yamashiro is a very interesting example of how designers would use Japanese characters as both word and image. The design was for the Forest Protection Movement, and the character that’s used across it means ‘tree’. By repeating the character, the accumulation of the word ‘tree’ becomes ‘forest,’ and on the poster it even begins to look like a forest. The white space along the edge of the print moves towards the trees and therefore seems to threaten the forest. And the white space in between the characters is the wind blowing through the trees. It’s a wonderful example of a very elegant and meaningful poster totally built up of typography.”

Ikko Tanaka

Noh Performance, 1958

“This is one of Ikko Tanaka’s most famous posters. It’s the first he designed for Noh, a form of classical Japanese musical theatre; from 1958 onwards, Tanaka spent 30 years designing Noh posters for the Kanze Noh theatre in Osaka. Here, the designer combines traditional Japanese aesthetics with ‘Western’ geometric shapes and colors.

“The faces of Noh actors are always completely white. For this poster design, photographic fragments of a Noh actor’s face are show in a classical way, but then the background is made from colorful squares, a surface treatment very informed by the Swiss school of design. This particular composition is a beautiful balance of color, facial elements, and characters.” 

Tadahito Nadamoto

A story about the bomb, 1969

“This design is another example of how Japanese designers have historically been masters in using the total surface of a print. This particular theater poster features an illustration of a woman’s face. The white background becomes her skin, and she has this striking diagonal eye make-up that stretches out across the poster’s entirety. Next to her little red pout, the designer has signed his name in the place of a beauty spot. Then the characters are placed diagonally near to her brow in such a way that she looks a little bit angry.”

Kiyoshi Awazu

The 5th Exhibition of Contemporary Japanese Sculpture, 1973

Kiyoshi Awazu is sometimes referred to as ‘the hippy.’ Instead of looking West for references, he felt that designers had a huge reservoir of beautiful historical images in Japan to draw from. He rebuked a lot of modernist design ideals and created very surreal, psychedelic posters. Awazu was very multi-talented: he made films, he was a sculptor himself, and he was also very interested in printing techniques.  

“This particular poster was for an exhibition of sculptures in Japan. The design evokes sculpture in the unexpected pairings of objects and the use of scale. You have to look closely at Awazu’s designs to unpack all of the details.”  

Tadanori Yokoo and Will van Sambeek

Tadanori Yokoo, 1974

“The Stedelijk Museum has been interested in Japanese graphic design since before the second world war. In fact, this is our eighth exhibition on Japanese design. Another one of our exhibitions featuring Japanese design was in 1974, when Tadanori Yokoo visited and we curated his first European exhibition. He designed the poster for it himself, with lettering by the Dutch designer Will van Sambeek. He’s a master of mixing pop images together and you can see that with this design, but it’s also quite a quiet composition for him.  

“Yokoo included a photograph of himself on the poster, and he’s wearing bright red lipstick. He’s being invited by the deity Jibo Kannon to take a ride in a chariot. The poster was produced at a time when the media was full of accounts of people saying they’d been abducted by UFOs, and Yokoo is drawing from that reference too.”

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