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By Marie Carvalho
Special to The Advertiser
By Marie Carvalho
Images don't just communicate agendas: They make or break them.
To warring nations, there's nothing more important — for morale, control — than cohesive national spirit. And while crises may inspire initial solidarity, the powers that be know that power is built and sustained by images.
Take, for example, the current U.S. "terror alert" system's visual color code. Colors appeal not to intellect but to emotions. There's an entire science of color and mood (blood-like red, for example, signals power, danger, and also makes people hungry for food — a visual trick designers employ in restaurant interiors).
And sometimes what's not shown is just as significant in sculpting public perception as what is, as in the alleged U.S. governmental ban on media images of flag-draped coffins returning home from Iraq.
Which is what's so fascinating about the terribly lovely textiles in "Wearing Propaganda: Textiles on the Home Front in Japan, Britain and the United States, 1931-45." A smorgasbord of war-era garb, the show illuminates cross-culturally consistent themes (sacrifice, patriotism, alliances), as well as cultural disparities in the visual construction of national identities.
What those cultural differences boil down to, in part, is what could be — at that time — seen or not seen.
The largely pre-war Japanese designs illuminate hidden (literally) agendas; many feature images on undergarments or inward-facing coat linings, unexposed to public view. Their "reveal" took place in more intimate settings, as a relatively private performance of identity. By contrast, the American and British designs, which date primarily to the war years, were openly displayed as headscarves or dress fabric.
SPANNING TIME, PLACE
Those Western images have an ease and brightness about them, an almost cheery Pollyannaesque sloganeering. While the Western imperial garb calls for sacrifice in fashions and rations, the still-unproven Eastern empire suggests that sacrifice may mean life. It's a small civic price, the more tonally intense images argue, in the irrepressible quest for a beneficent Japanese empire that, if successful, would spread modernity throughout the Pacific.
There's something deeply disturbing about googly-eyed planes juxtaposed with swastika flags on little girls' haregi ("best" clothes). But its reinforcement of militaristic alliances and attitudes has nothing on its British equivalent: shocking imprints of Royal Air Force planes on a traditional wool blanket, produced in England to be worn by colonized indigenous South African tribesmen. Empire, it seems, is a common denominator.
These stunning works prove how imagery transcends time and place and person to become iconic. The Japanese textiles layer modernist symbols over ancient imperial iconographies, exuberantly embracing a new mode within a historic narrative pictorial frame. In contrast, the Western war-era designs appear, even then, comfortable in their modernism; some could almost be plucked from the pages of today's consumer catalogs.
The Japanese images are gorgeous and cinematic. On a nagajuban (an undergarment for a kimono), soldiers disembark onto a beach by moonlight, the chiaroscuro sky opening above to reveal bombers in flight. Exploding bombs printed on a haori (a kimono's short outer jacket) form a lush abstraction of red ink. Planes create subtle organic designs across a woman's exposed obi (a kimono's outer sash).
One furoshiki (wrapping cloth) depicts a decisive Mitsubishi bomber, its gunner poised heroically against a blue expanse fading diagonally to white — a studied, artificial atmospheric effect that recalls traditional ukiyo-e prints. To the contemporary eye, the plane itself looks like fabric: its rivets stitching, its olive drab that of contemporary cargos from, say, a Banana Republic store, which just 30 years ago sold safari-themed khakis — comfortable colonial garb. That today's fashion might instead now resemble a 1930s military plane seems to imply an increasingly edgy, militaristic national (and international) consciousness.
It's too bad that this excellent show is divided between two separate — and far apart — museum galleries, diffusing its impact. That disjunction is further complicated by the exhibition's thematic organization; though the themes are clear, many overlap within various individual works, resulting in a somewhat confusing order and visual redundancy throughout the galleries.
But don't let those quibbles deter you (and don't miss the show's larger second gallery, in the permanent textiles gallery near the Doris Duke display). Though textiles — like many applied arts — don't always get their due, this show deserves to be seen. The uber-cool garments assembled here are both timely and imagistically provocative. They're the stuff of power, reminding us that for power to be given, it must first be made.
Marie Carvalho is a freelance writer who covers the arts.
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POWER IMAGES AS OLD AS MAN
Propaganda, defined as the systematic propagation of a doctrine or cause, is a relatively new term, dating to the 18th century, writes essayist Kashiwagi Hiroshi in the handsome, image-studded "Wearing Propaganda" exhibition catalog.
But while modern means such as printing have accelerated propaganda's pace, its emergence and ties to visual imagery are — contrary to Hiroshi's claims — hardly modern. (And if the slain animals incised by prehistoric hunters onto clay cave floors are any measure, it's nearly as old as dirt.)
Patrons, public and private, have long understood and cultivated the image's persuasive potency.
Consider ancient Graeco-Roman commemorative battle friezes, or the 8-foot-tall sculpted head of the ambitious Roman emperor Constantine (a fragmentary remain of a once-massive statue), or obsequious portraits of elite merchants from, for example, 17th-century Holland.
Painting oneself into heroic scenes with gods or their iconic accoutrements, or in godlike proportion, equals alignment with power.
And there's nothing quite like a strong image — Gothic cathedral spires that extend impossibly heavenward, exterior gargoyles that invoke hell — to coalesce people behind an idea.