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Contemporary Japanese Posters

Masato Ohki, Ogikubo Great Test Drive, 1996

Contemporary Japanese Posters


February 15th - March 15th, 2002

Curator: Dr. Ilana Singer 


The techniques of chromo-lithography printing first reached Japan at the beginning of the 20th century, when there appeared a series of posters of beautiful women. These posters were framed and exhibited in a closed hall, rather than being displayed on hoardings in the streets as is customary in the western world. This mode of display gave the posters a touch of quality, and allowed viewers to regard them as they would any work of artistic value. In the 1930s the Japanese artists, like their fellow artists in Europe, signed their posters, and as much importance was attached to the publicized work as to the artist who had created it.


After World War II, the graphic designers of Japan aspired to achieving international recognition, and their posters were also produced for export. Posters with motifs derived from the best of traditional Japanese art were sold as cheap mementos, especially to foreigners visiting the country. At the beginning of the 1950s, the Japanese designers stopped using traditional motifs, and based their posters on modern western designs. This decision did not please some of the foreign clients, but the Japanese designers managed, nonetheless, to detach themselves from tradition and from the economic depression of Eastern Asia, and to identify with American-European prosperity. In the years after the war, designers only had access to paper of poor quality and antiquated printing machines, so that colours were limited to defined areas and inscriptions were written by hand. Use of photography was also restricted. The processes of poster reproduction in the "fifties were essentially primitive, and the clients who commissioned the posters were not aware of their artistic value. The poster artists were limited to announcements of cultural events, performances, meetings, and the activities of the Japanese Advertisers" Association. Few of them were producing posters for the big industrial unions at that time.   


Most of the posters were created especially for the annual design exhibition of the Japanese Society of Publishers. As a rule, the artists themselves financed the production of their posters, and availed themselves of the opportunity to try out new printing methods. The critic Hiromu Hara wrote, in the 1960 edition of "Graphis", that it was usually the young graphic designers at the beginning of their artistic career who took this opportunity of designing large, colourful posters and receiving artistic recognition.


During the 1960s, many posters were printed by the silk-screen method, which allowed the artists to contrive wonderful colour combinations, particularly in the pop-art style then prevailing in the United States. At the same time, advances were made in many other printing methods. Printers like Dai-Nippon and Toppan cooperated with the designers to improve the quality of poster papers and techniques. The Morisawa Company also improved the typefaces of the Chinese symbols and the Latin alphabet.


In 1965, the Matsuya Department Store in Tokyo presented an exhibition called "The Era of the Beautiful Poster", organized by Masaru Katsumie. More than three hundred posters from the decorative arts collection of the Louvre in Paris were displayed. The popularity of the art poster in Japan increased as a result of this exhibition, and the Japanese artists began to create posters in their own personal style.


By the end of the 1960s, young people of East and West alike used the poster as an inexpensive means of disseminating all kinds of messages, and a cheap way of decorating their rooms. Many of them identified with the political posters or messages of social awareness and re-examination of values. At the time, the Japanese poster played a focal role in the world of advertising, and the trade unions were dependent on them for presenting a more positive image to the public. Advertisements for companies and manufacturers - such as Shiseido cosmetics, the Suntory Company, fashion houses and the big department stores - were the forerunners in the use of posters that conveyed a more personal message. Each year, before the annual design exhibition, there was a competition for designing the poster advertising the exhibition. From a dozen posters by top designers, one was officially selected. At the end of the 1970s and during the decade that followed, many Japanese posters concerning World Peace were exhibited internationally.


Because Japan is so heavily populated, there is not much room for exhibiting posters, and there are also very few places where one can buy them. So how can an advertisement measuring 103x72.8 cm. be seen? In the 19th century, special hoardings (ekanban) were constructed for this purpose at main intersections and at the public baths. The preferred venue today is usually the coffee house, railway station, or department store, and many posters have been reduced to half-size so that they can be hung in smaller shops, or they are adapted for display on special advertising vehicles (nakazuri).      


The main railway stations do display larger posters - 145.6x103 cm., but usually the posters are presented at special exhibitions and only rarely in the streets. Thus it often happens that the public is made aware of some event only after it has occurred.


A few galleries in Japan's larger cities have permanent shows of advertising posters and graphic designs. In 1976, ninety-two designers in various disciplines set up an independent gallery, "The Tokyo Design Space". The opening exhibition "One Day, One Exhibition" presented solo exhibitions by different graphic artists. In the 1990s, the Dai-Nippon Printing House opened a graphics gallery on the Ginza in Tokyo, and they present very popular shows of graphic design in this small space. Although the museums and small galleries do have poster exhibitions, the department stores of Tokyo are still the main venues, and  even show exhibitions of international and Japanese art. In 1975, the Seibu chain store in the Ikebukuro Quarter of Tokyo opened the "Seibu Art Museum", and in the same year, Leonardo da Vinci's "Mona Lisa" was exhibited in one of the Tokyo department stores.


Today, contemporary Japanese posters are regarded with the same esteem as the traditional woodblock prints, essentially because of their artistic merit. To establish their reputation, the Japanese artists concentrate more on creating posters than on any other aspect of graphic design. In order to participate in the graphic design exhibitions, the artists must ensure that their posters appear in journals and other publications dealing with graphics. Taking part in an exhibition increases the likelihood that the Graphic Design Association will print the poster.


Until quite recently, Japanese posters were distributed freely to tourists, in order to increase Japan's reputation for graphic design. However, the demand for posters is now so great that they are regarded as limited editions of art works, and are mainly distributed for special exhibitions. Many of them are displayed as works of art in museums and galleries, rather than to promote sales of specific commodities. The posters created by contemporary Japanese designers, incorporating both western and oriental motifs, have one conspicuous characteristic: they convey an emotional message rather than information about the subject advertised.

The exhibition presents Japanese posters from 1993-2000, by courtesy of the Japan Foundation and the Embassy of Japan in Israel.
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