- Yumeji Modern: Designing the Everyday in Twentieth-Century Japan by Nozomi Naoi
Takehisa Yumeji (1884–1934) was a protean figure in Japanese art during the first quarter of the early twentieth century. As Japan’s preeminent artist-impresario of the time, Yumeji would surely have delighted in the culture industry that still circles around his art and persona. Influencing a style of female fashion and perhaps even a kind of feminine behavior during his lifetime, then called “saint Yumeji” by followers [End Page 209] who republished his work after his death, Yumeji has in the last thirty years inspired a Uniqlo fashion line; been the subject of a major film as well as a gakkai (study association) devoted to him; and formed the content of six dedicated museums as well as a long list of books, articles, and special exhibitions exploring his remarkable life and equally remarkable creative production.
Depending on the era and the interpreter, Yumeji has been celebrated or derided as an icon of progressive, antiestablishment values; an incarnation of modern decadence; a model of the astute artist-entrepreneur; an object lesson in the fickleness of taste and celebrity; and, finally, because of his death after a period of virtual self-exile, a victim of his own success and excess. An author, Yumeji published poems, lyrics, essays, short stories, and an autobiographical novel. A fine artist, he designed prints for a broad audience and brushed screens and scrolls for wealthier patrons. A promoter and merchant, he exhibited the work of young artists and designed or at least commissioned the clothing, decorated paper, and clay dolls sold in his Minatoya shop-gallery. A prodigious illustrator, he produced innumerable cartoons, covers, and illustrations for books, music sheets, magazines, and newspapers, satisfying audiences from working-class (and elite) Marxists to middle-class children and well-to-do women. Although best known as the creator of the “Yumeji style” (Yumeji-shiki), often noted for its lyricism (jojō) and exemplified by bent-shouldered, long-faced beauties of doleful, ambiguous, or even (as this book calls it) “vacant” expression, Yumeji is also remembered for his simple ink sketches and for his careful naturalism and was an early exponent of Art Nouveau and Expressionism. More than perhaps any other artist of his era, Yumeji was shaped by—and helped give shape to—the period of intense social, economic, and cultural change that swept Japan in the first decades of the twentieth century. In the parlance of our day, he was a social influencer par excellence.
Given Yumeji’s enormous visual and literary output, the copious writing about him during his life, and the large and rapidly growing body of recent scholarship in Japanese, it is understandable that scholars in Europe and the Americas have perhaps been daunted by the thought of attempting a study on him. Equally, although Yumeji has long appealed to Japanese collectors, popular audiences, and some art historians, in Euro-American art history he has been tainted by the romantic mystique attached to his biography, and his art is conceived as a syrupy brew of adolescent taste and adult sentimentality expressed through the déclassé medium of illustration. In short, Yumeji has likely been ignored for being both too hard and too soft.
Nozomi Naoi thus deserves much praise for taking on Yumeji in what the bookflap identifies as the “first full-length English-language study.” Earlier, with Sabine Schenk, Naoi coauthored the introductory catalogue Takehisa Yumeji (Leiden: Hotei Publishing, 2015) on Yumeji’s work in the Nihon no hanga collection in Amsterdam. In Yumeji Modern, she briefly sketches out the artist’s paradigmatic work in the first chapter, then in the four following chapters examines his lesser-known roles as an illustrator for a socialist newspaper, a producer of personal art books (gashū), a leader and then follower of the sōsaku hanga (creative print) artists in the Tsukuhae [End Page 210] group, and finally the author of twenty-one sketches and short essays responding to the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923.