Japanese Poster Artists: Cherry Blossom and Asceticism

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Having grown up in Switzerland, those that know me are no stranger to my fondness of the country. Those that know me also know of my relentless affection towards Japan—a nation I often refer to as “the Switzerland of Asia.” This is the 150th year of diplomatic relations between the two nations. Surprised? I’m certain everyone is. What’s actually thrilling about this is that to celebrate, the Museum für Gestaltung Zürich has organized an exhibition, Japanese Poster Artists: Cherry Blossom and Asceticism, showcasing the stellar exemplars of renown Japanese graphic design. The exhibit is reflected in an accompanying book, Japan  Nippon, which marks the 26th release of the Lars Müller Publishing’s poster collections.

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Poetic, mystical, bold and beautiful are but a few of the adjectives one might conjure in ascertaining the charm behind Japanese posters. The exhibition features over 300 of these vibrant works, portraying the nation’s visual culture and the changes it faced as a result of the Second World War. The masters of the medium: Shigeo Fukuda, Kazumasa Nagai, and Ikko Tanaka, form the bulk of the exhibit, and their work is seen alongside an array of posters from the 1950s to present day. The exhibit encompasses everything from advertising to unadulterated artwork, displaying the many forms a poster can take.

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Modernist Western ideals, rapid economic development, and perhaps most importantly (in regards to design), the introduction of new printing techniques, led to an abundance of exploratory posters in post-war Japan. To Kiyonori Muroga, this is none better exemplified by Yusaku Kamekura’s work for the 1964 Olympic Games. In an essay written for Japan  Nippon, he states that, “it represented the intense visual impact achieved by art direction and well-executed typography, rather than pictorial graphic design… Recognized as a monumental achievement of, and an effort realized through, modern graphic design.”

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While much of the collection is advertising, a good deal of it portrays how the poster is also a means towards artwork. For the Japanese, the lines between art and design are blurred, leaving a lack of distinction between the two—the latter seen as a variation to the former, capable of reaching a wider audience. Artists such as Tadanori Yokoo capitalize on this outlook, acting as both artist and designer.

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This sense of duality is creatively embodied within his work, the same for his contemporaries, where a balance is struck between present and past. In her introduction to Japan  Nippon, curator Dr. Bettina Richter says, “these artworks possess an unusual visual aesthetic that is utterly captivating, and yet seems to refute all the conventional rules of visual communication…What is actually being advertised is often unclear, and the Japanese poster tends to be viewed instead as a visual embodiment of philosophical ideas of the Far East.”

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The sheer range of artistic styles on show is astounding, featuring a bevy of beautiful, intriguing and innovative designs that perhaps would not have come to be, had it not been for the poster. To me, Japanese Poster Artists clearly communicates two notions. The first being the the power of the poster, a medium that should be cherished. The other: a remarkable moment in history where a dialogue between Eastern and Western visual cultures harmoniously converged; collaboration should never be taken fore granted, whether adopted overtly or latently.

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The exhibit is on display until the 25th of May. Within this time, there’s a piano concert by Satoko Inoue, a traditional Japanese tea ceremony, workshops, and various talks—full details of the exhibit can be found at the gallery’s website. Poster Collection 26: Japan – Nippon is available from Lars Müller Publishers at $40.

Nick Partyka

February 26, 2014 / By

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