"I took at the time a memorandum of my several senses, and also of my hat and coat, and my best shoes - but it was lost in the melee, and I am out with lanterns, looking for myself."
- Emily Dickinson to Elizabeth Holland, around 20 January 1856
Like Emily Dickinson, the Japanese women portrayed in Taisho art were out looking for themselves in the world. What world is this, we may ask.
Taisho was the art of in-between, sandwiched between the days of Commodore Perry and World War II. It attracted little attention in the West until Leonard Lauder donated his impressive collection of Taisho postcards and prints to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, followed by a successful exhibition The Art of the Japanese Postcard in 2004.
In the 1920s Japanese artists had a love affair with influences from western art: the exaggeratedly long lines of Art Nouveau and the streamlined aesthetic of Art Deco (that last an anachronism that only came into use when Bevis Hillier wrote a book with that title in 1966).
Caught between strict norms dictating female behavior and the pull of modern popular culture, Japanese women styled their conflict between traditional Japanese behavior and modern insouciance. Their ambivalence was reflected in Taisho art, its kimono-wearing bobbed-haired women and even its inanimate objects - electric light cords hanging from paper lanterns. We may chafe at the limited opportunities available of office work, shop clerking, or waitressing but for the women dubbed modan gaaru these were doors opening toward the fresh air of freedom.
Kaichi Kobayashi (1896-1986) was a remarkably sophisticated and worldly designer from Kyoto who began making wood block prints during the Taisho period (1912-1926), so named for the Emperor Taisho. Kaichi Kobayashi was not alone in drawing impossibly reed-tall women; he had numerous counterpoints in western art, especially in Vienna.
Kaichi Kobayasha - "Woman Standing near Lamp Post" from the series Deserted Street Lanterns, Taisho, early Showa Era, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.