April 13–September 2, 2024

Songs for Modern Japan

Popular Music and Graphic Design, 1900–1950

Japan experienced a whirlwind of change between 1900 and 1950. At the turn of the century, Western music notation had become a sign of modernity, helping spread jazz and Broadway to Tokyo cafés and nightclubs, and promoting Japanese film music both inside and outside Japan. Increasing modernism, consumerism, and influence from the West came alongside a revolution in sound and mass-produced images from movies and radio.

“Songs for Modern Japan: Popular Music and Graphic Design, 1900–1950” explores how sheet music covers provide a window into Japanese society and culture during this period of immense transformation. Visitors discover how leading Japanese graphic designers of the day interpreted modernist international art movements like Art Nouveau and Art Deco, and how demand for military sheet music with propagandist images grew in the 1920s and ’30s, reflecting the country’s imperialist aspirations. Through investigating styles of graphic design, bold typography, genres of music, and the societal environment in Japan, visitors get a glimpse of how design and music celebrating modernity and globalism gave way to endorsing nationalism.

About 100 sheet music covers from the collection of Mary and Robert Levenson—alongside paintings, photographs, textiles, music, film clips, and musical instruments from the period—capture the dynamic effects of international artistic exchange and the profound societal shifts in a globalizing Japan. The exhibition presents an opportunity to draw parallels between this pivotal time in Japan’s history and today.

  • Charlotte F. and Irving W. Rabb Gallery (Gallery 155)

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Support provided by the William Randolph Hearst Foundations.