Stedelijk Museum visits ‘Colorful Japan’ via posters

Kazumasa Nagai, ‘Himeji Shirotopia Exhibition 1989,’ 1988.

AMSTERDAM – “Colorful Japan” is the Stedelijk Museum’s posthumous tribute to Japanese graphic designer Shigeru Watano (1937-2012) and features 226 Japanese posters on display in the Gallery of Honor.

Watano, who lived in the Netherlands, was a vital link between the Stedelijk and numerous Japanese designers. Through his help, the Stedelijk was able to acquire many Japanese posters, and Japanese designers generously donated their work to the museum. In 2018, DAI Nippon Printers presented the museum with a lavish gift of 92 posters, thanks to which the Stedelijk collection of 800 Japanese posters is considered the finest in Europe.

The exhibition showcases a cross-section of Japan’s unique graphic design with work by designers such as Hiroshi Ochi, Kazumasa Nagai, Ikko Tanaka, Yusaku Kamekura, Mitsuo Katsui, Shigeo Fukuda, U.G. Sato, Ken Miki and Eiko Ishioka. The oldest poster dates from 1937, the most recent from 2018. One wall of the exhibition is devoted exclusively to the internationally famed graphic designer and artist Tadanori Yokoo. In 1974, with the help of Watano, the Stedelijk was the first European institute to display his work.

“Spotlighting 226 Japanese posters from our collection, Colorful Japan literally explodes with color. With posters floor-to-ceiling, the Hall of Honor walls immerses visitors in a kaleidoscopic world,” said curator Carolien Glazenburg.

Compared to its European cousin, Japanese poster design is a relatively recent discipline. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that posters became used for advertising. The posters vary widely in style; some flaunt vivid tones, and others are quiet, reserved and minimal. Japanese designers explore a different visual language to that found in Europe. Japanese visual culture is less direct and more nuanced, very often poetic. The image doesn’t always seem to match the subject, like a magnified character with a lyrical text for a pop concert, for instance.

Japanese characters play an important decorative role when positioned horizontally (European style) and vertically (the traditional Japanese manner). Particularly after World War II, designers use photography to great effect as the medium becomes rapidly accessible and Japanese manufacturers like Canon and Nikon became major players.

This fall, three exhibitions on graphic design can be seen at the Stedelijk. “Colorful Japan” is accompanied by the exhibition “Wim Crouwel: Mr. Gridnik” (Sept. 28-March 22), and the presentation “Best Dutch Book Designs 2018” (Sept. 25-Oct. 30).