Unpinning History : Japanese Posters in the Age of Commercialism, Imperialism, and Modernism

Exhibition Culture

Exhibitions were the major loci for Japan to learn Western thoughts, modern culture, and advance technologies at the end of the Edo period (1615–1868) and especially throughout the Meiji period (1868–1912).[1] In other words, participating in world fairs, organizing domestic industrial expositions, supporting industries and products for displays, and structuring art institutions were ways for the officials to promote Japan as a civilized state. At the same time, the public learned to be citizens of a modern state, educating themselves through active viewing.[2] By the Taishō period, the allure of exhibitions, as imagined by the Meiji government, had waned; instead, exhibitions became entertainment and destinations for visual pleasure.

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Unpinning History features posters advertising two official exhibitions held consecutively in 1921 and 1922. The first one is the Insatsu Bunka Hakurankai/Graphic Art Exposition, which was dedicated to print culture and was sponsored by the Ministry of Education. Showcasing historical prints, graphic design and art, and printing technologies, the exhibition attracted a number of general audiences for such a specialized theme: more than 310,000 visitors over an exhibition period of only a month. The high attendance attests to the surge of interest in print culture and graphic design during the period. In contrast, the Heiwa Kinen Tokyo Hakurankai/Tokyo Peace (Memorial) Exhibition, which was organized to commemorate the end of The First World War, was a large-scale spectacle. With pavilions of Japan’s colonies, prefectures, and of major industries as well as a section of “bunka jūtaku” (modern “culture houses”) and airplane demonstrations, the exposition was extremely popular and had more than 11 million visitors—a record number for a Taishō-period exhibition.[3] 

Sugiyama Sueo (1885–1946) and Tada Hokuu (1889–1948), two designers represented in this section, established themselves as independent graphic designers, who also strived to raise the field of design. Sugiyama was one of the organizers of the Graphic Art Exposition, not just a designer of the exhibition advertisements. After serving as the in-house designer at the Ichida Offset Printing Company, Tada became a design consultant for Isetan Department Store and was also involved in multiple design studies groups. (Rika Hiro)

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