The Museum recently acquired seventeen Japanese paintings largely produced and exhibited in Tokyo in the 1930s—the early Shōwa era—an overlooked period in the history of the arts in Japan. In many cases the subject matter, as well as the size, gave these paintings a commanding presence: large, elegant images of skiers, of stylish tea-house attendants in an art deco tea room, of young women in the latest Parisian fashion standing on the prow of a sailboat, and of a traditional Japanese woman standing in front of a decorated Christmas tree.
Painted for Japanese audiences, and exhibited at the leading Tokyo annual exhibitions, these paintings expressed a worldview held by large numbers of Japanese during the 1930s. They saw themselves as sophisticated citizens of the world: Their country created a national park system to rival that of the United States, their country sent successful teams to both the winter and summer Olympics (and, in fact, was awarded the right to host the 1940 games by the International Olympic Committee), and they celebrated Christmas exactly as all western countries did (although in Japan it did not have any religious significance). In “Shōwa Sophistication: Japan in the 1930s,” these works are interpreted from the point of view of their contemporary Japanese audience, putting the images in their social context and that of artistic tradition from which they emerged.