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The proto-pop art of Yumeji Takehisa

Chiyoda City Education Board

Original artwork of “Hibari (Sky lark)” from Senow music scores (1924)

By Kumi Matsumaru / Japan News Staff WriterArtist Yumeji Takehisa (1884-1934) has long attracted a following with his well-known elegant but often melancholic depictions of women.

But two ongoing exhibitions in Tokyo focus on a different side of Takehisa, one as a graphic artist who was engaged in a variety of works closely associated with everyday life. The exhibitions show us Takehisa can even be regarded as a proto-pop artist because his works were filled with fresh designs or ideas that influenced what people of his time used, wore or even how they decorated their homes.

“Yumeji is known for his gracious depictions of languid women in bijinga (beautiful woman) paintings, but this show proves he actually was active in a variety of fields,” said Akira Tomita, director of Tokyo Station Gallery in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, where more than 500 of the artist’s works are being shown in an exhibition titled “Takehisa Yumeji: Master of Japanese Modern Illustration.”

Among the exhibits shown in four sections are 134 original drawings Takehisa did for a serial autobiographical novel that was carried in a newspaper in 1927. This is the first time they are being shown to the public.

Occupying an entire wall is a portion of more than 270 paintings he did for the book covers of musical scores. They indicate Takehisa’s adeptness at capturing the mood of each piece of music, using flowing lines and graphic lettering. He did the paintings between 1916 and 1927, the period soon after various music genres started entering Japan.

Visitors also can learn about Takehisa’s broad output for children’s magazines and books. His paintings made for those publications show the versatile artist also excelled at depicting fairy-tale-like worlds, often with bold, yet simplified lines.

According to Tomita, Takehisa opened a shop in Nihonbashi, Tokyo, in 1914 called Minatoya Ezoshiten where he sold original items he had designed, ranging from stationery and postcards to furoshiki wrapping cloth. It was like the art and design shops of today.

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  • Takehisa Yumeji Museum

    Yumeji Takehisa’s depiction of an “ideal room decoration for young women” in the magazine Shin Shojo (1915)

  • Takehisa Yumeji Museum

An early adopter of the term kawaii to market his wares, he sold items that combined the feel of the Edo period (1603-1867) with exotic tastes. “The shop was attractive enough to become a popular spot among people visiting Tokyo for sightseeing,” Tomita said.

The store also served as a gallery for young, talented artists to display their works. “It reflects Yumeji’s inclination toward modern art, too.”

Keiko Ishikawa at the Takehisa Yumeji Museum in Bunkyo Ward, Tokyo, referred to Takehisa as “one of the first people in Japan who produced goods and everyday items with the concept of kawaii.”

About 170 items are on display at the museum in an exhibition titled “Takehisa Yumeji: Kurashi o Irodoru Chiisa na Bi” (Takehisa Yumeji: Small beauty in everyday life).

“Yumeji was keen on introducing into his works various elements, including art nouveau and art deco,” said Ishikawa, pointing to an array of postcards and ebuto, or decorative envelopes, with such motifs as flowers.

According to Ishikawa, Takehisa’s ebuto became popular, riding a trend at the time among women for exchanging letters, and the envelopes were even collected by avid fans of his work.

Takehisa did not forget to offer young women ideas and suggestions on interior decoration, either.

For an article in the magazine “Shin Shojo” in 1915, for example, he drew an image of the “ideal room decoration for young women,” using straight lines and simplified pictures. It came with the following advice: “Decorate your room with green, a fresh, pure, noble and serene color … which will make you feel like you are reading, thinking or writing a letter in the woods.”

“He also designed embroidery patterns for haneri [a detachable collar for the nagajuban, a kimono-shaped robe worn under the kimono] for a supplement to the women’s magazine ‘Fujin no Tomo’ in 1915. Readers must have enjoyed the Takehisa style, using the patterns when making their own haneri,” Ishikawa added

“This exhibition shows Yumeji was a man of ideas. Yumeji might not have been highly recognized in the world of fine art, given his status as a self-taught painter when it was the norm to receive art education to become an artist. But he had a lot of influence, particularly on young people, through products which they could easily access.”

■ “Takehisa Yumeji: Master of Japanese Modern Illustration” runs through July 1 at the Tokyo Station Gallery in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo. Open from 10 a.m. to .6 p.m. (8 p.m. on Fridays). Closed on Mondays except for June 25. http://www.ejrcf.or.jp/gallery/english

“Takehisa Yumeji: Kurashi o Irodoru Chiisa na Bi” runs through June 24 at Takehisa Yumeji Museum in Bunkyo Ward, Tokyo. Open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed on Mondays. www.yayoi-yumeji-museum.jpSpeech

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