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Art of the Japanese Postcard

The Leonard A. Lauder Collection at the MFA, Boston

Exhibition: March 10 - June 6 , 2004
By Anne Nishimura Morse

During the first decades of the twentieth century, the new medium of the postcard quickly replaced the traditional woodblock print as the favored tableau for contemporary Japanese images. Hundreds of millions of postcards were produced to meet the demands of a public eager to acquire pictures of their rapidly modernizing nation. Many of the first cards were distributed by the government in connection with the Russo-Japanese War (1904–5), to promote the war effort. Almost immediately, however, many of Japan’s leading artists—attracted by the informality and intimacy of the postcard medium—began to create stunning designs. For these painters and graphic designers postcards also provided exciting opportunities to experiment with the latest European styles, such as Art Nouveau and Art Deco.

Between 1900 and 1940, Japan was transformed into an international, industrial, and urban society. Postcards—both a fresh form of visual expression and an important means of advertising—reveal much about the dramatically changing values of Japanese society at the time.

In March 2002 Leonard A. Lauder donated his collection of more than twenty thousand Japanese postcards to the Museum of Fine Arts. These works largely date from the early twentieth century to the years just before World War Two and represent an astonishing array of subjects and styles.

Anne Nishimura Morse is curator of Japanese Art.

The media sponsor for this exhibition was Classical 102.5 WCRB.

Themes in Japanese Postcards

Select a category to thematically browse a selection of the works in this collection:

Postcard History

The craze for postcards in the early twentieth century, the development of the postal service, the growth of the printing industry, and the appearance of shops specializing in the sale of cards.
Browse Japanese Postcards related to this theme.

Artists

Postcards created by many of the leading artists of the early twentieth century.
Browse Japanese Postcards related to this theme.

Art Nouveau

Japanese artists were excited by the fluid, curving lines of this sumptuous European style, which they integrated into their own designs.

Art Deco

The style assciated with the cosmopolitan urban culture that blossomed in Japan during the 1920s and 1930s. Known for geometric patterns, linear stylization, and saturated colors, Art Deco was embraced by graphic designers creating advertisements and New Year’s cards.
Browse Japanese Postcards related to this theme.

Advertising

Diverse images produced by large and small companies in response to Japan’s growing consumer society.
Browse Japanese Postcards related to this theme.

Ehagaki sekai (World of Picture Postcards)

Humorous designs produced for the supplement to the satirical magazine Kokkei shinbun.
Browse Japanese Postcards related to this theme.

New Year’s Cards

Designs created to communicate traditional greetings at the advent of the year.
Browse Japanese Postcards related to this theme.

Russo-Japanese War (1904–5)

Images of military engagements as well as of celebrations on the home front at the conclusion of the conflict, when Japan established itself as a major international power.
Browse Japanese Postcards related to this theme.

Military Cards

The growing power of the Japanese army and navy during the first four decades of the twentieth century.

Historic Events

Postcards that commemorated developments in diplomatic relations, the national census, and expositions.

Vignettes

Cards that include collotype inserts surrounded by decorative graphic borders.
Browse Japanese Postcards related to this theme.

Transportation

The trains and ships that were critical to Japan’s industrialization in the early twentieth century.

Sports

Essential to Japan’s image as a modern nation.

Royalty

Images to emperors Meiji, Taisho, and Showa and members of the imperial family.

Views

Sites throughout Japan.

Architecture

Traditional buildings as well as those in the new Western mode, including Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel.

Women

The chief subject of Japanese postcards, wearing both traditional and contemporary, Western dress.
Browse Japanese Postcards related to this theme.

Humor

Satirical images as well as postcards relating farcical tales, which were produced in sets.

Theatre

Images of traditional Kabuki and Noh actors.