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Tokyo exhibition sheds light on pioneering prewar Japanese designer Hisui Sugiura

"Asia's First Subway Begins Operation Between Ueno and Asakusa," a 1927 poster by Hisui Sugiura to announce the opening of the Tokyo Underground Railway, is seen in this image provided by The Museum of Art, Ehime.=Click/tap for more images.

TOKYO -- Before Japan had graphic designers, it had designers known as "zuanka." And before graphic design itself was an established discipline, there was Hisui Sugiura (1876-1965), a pioneering designer and artist whose works are the subject of a special exhibition at Tokyo's Tobacco & Salt Museum until Nov. 14.

    Sugiura, a native of the city of Matsuyama in west Japan's Ehime Prefecture, studied Japanese-style painting, or Nihonga, at the Tokyo Fine Arts School -- now Tokyo University of the Arts -- where he showed a passion for sketching animals and other nature. He first turned to a career in design after encountering the art nouveau works that his mentor, western-style painter Seiki Kuroda, brought from the 1900 Paris Exhibition.

    Sugiura's long career saw him give new visual identities to a wide range of products, including iconic cigarette packaging, book and magazine covers, as well as posters for Tokyo's first subway, major department stores, enduringly popular soft drinks and other items. But the breadth of his work has made appreciating its sweep difficult; this latest exhibition, the first to tour the country, offers visitors a chance to appreciate his style within its context as part of the history of modern Japanese design.

    "Shinjuku Mitsukoshi completed, opens October 10," one of the posters Hisui Sugiura created in his work at the department store's design department, is seen in this image provided by The Museum of Art, Ehime.=Click/tap for more images.

    Among the pieces on display are works by Sugiura that are held up as era-defining designs more famous than the man himself. Chief among them is his poster heralding the opening of the Tokyo Underground Railway between Asakusa and Ueno in 1927, the first ever in Asia. The composition, inspired by Art Deco works including those Sugiura encountered while in Europe in 1922, portrays the coming rush of the new; among the thronging passengers awaiting the approaching train, those at the back are portrayed in more traditional Japanese clothing, whereas the people at the very front are seen in western attire.

    From 1908-1934, Sugiura also worked at Mitsukoshi Gofukuten, the Japanese clothing seller that reinvented itself into what is now the Mitsukoshi department store chain. He became the first head of its new design department, and produced advertising posters, covers for its monthly magazines, obi belt patterns, fan designs and more. His striking poster for the opening of its new Shinjuku outlet in 1930 is among the prominently displayed works from this part of his career.

    Did Sugiura consider himself a pioneer? Yoshifumi Shizume, chief curator at the Tobacco & Salt Museum, says he thinks he did. But when asked whether we can call his work art, he is less convinced.

    "There's a significant, big difference between art and design. They have different roles. But it's a very difficult point; there are many people who work so hard at design that they come to think that it is, actually, a kind of art. I think Hisui Sugiura may have been one of the first people to worry about such a thing," he said.

    The exhibition is said to have attracted many young people, in a trend which may be attributable to recent revivals of kimono and Taisho Roman (short for romantic) culture of the Taisho period spanning from 1912-26. Shizume says Hisui is a significant guide to understanding Tokyo aesthetics between the wars.

    "There's no doubt that Hisui portrayed Tokyo from the 1920s through the 1930s, about 20 years, and that when it comes to trying to understand that time, he is an indispensable figure," the curator stressed.

    Packaging for Japanese cigarette brand Hikari -- first sold in 1936 -- that was designed by Hisui Sugiura is seen in this image provided by the Tobacco & Salt Museum.=Click/tap photo for more images.

    The exhibition's Tokyo leg is its second of four on a national tour co-organized by The Mainichi Newspapers Co. Those further from the capital can see Sugiura's work at the Mie Prefectural Art Museum in Tsu, Mie Prefecture, from Nov. 23 to Jan. 30, 2022, and at the Fukuoka Prefectural Museum of Art in the city of Fukuoka from April 15 to June 12, 2022.

    Entry to the exhibition is included in admission to the Tobacco & Salt Museum, located in Tokyo's Sumida Ward. General admission costs 100 yen (about $0.90), while children up to high-school age and visitors aged 65 and above can enter for 50 yen. Signage within the exhibit is largely in Japanese. The museum is closed on Mondays. Inquiries can be made at 03-3622-8801 (Japanese language only).

    (By Peter Masheter, The Mainichi Staff Writer)

    Hisui Sugiura is seen at an exhibition of book and magazine covers in 1912, in this image from a Hisui album provided by The Museum of Art, Ehime. =Click/tap photo for more images.

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