The years between the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905) and the invasion of Manchuria (1931–1932) represent a period of rapid change in Japan, where industrialization was well underway at the turn of the century. Beginning in 1912 with the reign of Emperor Taishō, the country started to become much more liberal following decades of authoritarian rule under Emperor Meiji. The Taishō period also led to a more prominent presence on the international stage and ultimately opened the door to further Westernization of Japanese society. The Western world’s influence found its way into Japanese music, films, fashion, art, design, and the culture at-large so that by the 1920s, Tokyo was having its own version of the Roaring Twenties alongside Paris and New York City.
Hamada Masuji, who started out as an oil painter, turned to commercial art as a way to fund his education. Like many of his peers who studied to be fine artists, he was keenly aware of the new opportunities that materialized with a burgeoning consumer culture spurred by Western influences. Department stores and manufacturing companies needed “effective visual and verbal strategies to advertise and market their products,” according to Gennifer Weisenfeld in Being Modern in Japan. She continues, “Together with a broad range of activist-designers, Masuji and his circle of colleagues in the Association of Commercial Artists spearheaded a movement to construct a new social status for design, legitimizing commercial art as a significant area of artistic practice.”
This movement culminated in a groundbreaking anthology titled Gendai shōgyō bijutsu zenshū (The Complete Commercial Artist). A 24-volume series published by Ars from 1928–1930, it brought together dozens of examples of modernist commercial art from Japan and other countries. Masuji served as editor and co-writer of the volumes with the help of over 60 other Japanese critics, teachers, and artists. Each installment focuses on a different aspect of commercial art, such as facades, advertising, signage, typography, posters, street kiosks, and packaging. The final volume contains a long-form essay of approximately 100 pages, which details Masuji’s philosophies on commercial art and the role of the graphic artist in society. The study of graphic design was still in its infancy in 1928 (the term had just been coined in 1922 by W. A. Dwiggins), so these publications helped to define the emerging role of the graphic artist as a skilled and respected profession in Japan.
The Complete Commercial Artist also provided the necessary tools and framework for many Japanese business owners who didn’t have a background in the arts to utilize the latest design principles. Masuji described the examples in this compendium as shōgyō bijutsu, a term used to classify “practical art” or “art with a purpose.” More than just standard advertising fare, shōgyō bijutsu was meant to convey the skilled application of formalist design strategies as a means to persuade and sell goods and services more effectively. Available via a subscription service, the volumes were sold to a wide swath of Japanese companies, including newspapers, advertising agencies, retailers, and manufacturing firms. Weisenfeld states, “[it] served as both a record of original design work being produced during the period and an invaluable tool for disseminating the most up-to-date design practices to small retail shops that could not afford to employ full-time designers but still sought to invest their advertising and displays with creative aesthetics.”
Aesthetically, it was based on the latest avant-garde techniques developed by the Bauhaus school in Germany, Russian constructivism, and de Stijl (“the Style”) out of the Netherlands. Masuji’s focus on the Bauhaus, in particular, can be partly attributed to one of his close collaborators on the project, the critic and painter Nakada Sadanosuke, who visited the school in 1922 and is credited with being one of the first to write about it in the Japanese press. Also influential to Masuji was the artist Tomoyoshi Murayama, one of the founders of the Japanese art movement Mavo, who introduced him to the underlying principles of constructivism.
Though many other factors were at play during the interwar period in Japan, Masuji’s influential work as a critic, activist, and design theorist was vital to the development and proliferation of modernism in Japan in the 1920s and ’30s. Furthermore, his tireless efforts to oversee this massive visual compendium provide valuable insight into a country that was steeped in centuries-old traditions but eager to embrace new technologies and Western-style influences at the same time.
For collectors, The Complete Commercial Artist offers a rare opportunity to experience an emerging Japan eager to enter the modern world through commercial art and to appreciate a latter example of Japonisme. Each volume represents a tangible snapshot of the cultural and artistic environment of the country as it was transitioning from being an insular society to one that was more globally engaged. Having been published in limited print runs for just a few short years (1928–1930), complete sets of the compendium are hard to come by (although individual volumes do appear on the market from time to time) making the periodicals a prized possession for collectors of Japanology, graphic design, rare books, and commercial art.
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