These six paintings have crossed an ocean and a continent, and together they represent a world that only existed for a brief moment. Perhaps most interestingly, this is the first time they’ve been shown together in about four decades.
Ballroom Florida, an exhibit at the John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art, attempts to recreate the Jazz Age in Japan. The centerpiece is a series of six paintings by Enomoto Chikatoshi depicting women who may have attended the dance hall that gives the exhibition its title.
These paintings represented a distraction from the mores of Japanese art, which had traditionally depicted women in traditional poses. But Chikatoshi painted contemporary women in western attire as glamorous, and he captured the brief moment of the Jazz Age in Japan.
Rhiannon Paget, curator of Asian art at the Ringling Museum, says that Chikatoshi’s paintings exemplify the bijin-ga Japanese art style, which depicts beautiful people.
“It’s a genre that dates back hundreds of years,” Paget says of bijin-ga. “But the interesting thing about Enomoto Chikatoshi is that instead of making these kinds of low-key, old-fashioned women like a lot of his peers did, he made these kinds of low-key, old-fashioned women fashionable. He dressed her in contemporary western clothing. He gave them bobs. He made them look like they were doing cool stuff that modern women want, and it represented a kind of aspiring lifestyle.”
While working through the ’20s and ’30s, Chikatoshi was highly an artist of his time.
And because of the chaotic nature of the world at the time, it was a time that would not last.
Ballroom Florida opened in 1928, and Paget says the scene would disappear as quickly as it appeared.
This makes Chikatoshi’s paintings more than just art; they are historical postcards.
“There was a period of really rapid Westernization in the late 19th century,” says Paget. “During the 1930s, their ties with many parts of Europe and America become ever more intense [strained]. They have already invaded China; they define their own brand of modernism.
“They establish their own natural identity, which means they get to enjoy those aspects of the westernized lifestyle. Women enjoy much more social freedom. But they are still very Japanese. They keep their own traditions and create new ones, quite nationalistic at this point.”
According to Paget, the women in the paintings were probably taxi dancers who worked in the ballroom and danced with men for a fee. Some of the women wear jewellery. One of the women depicted appears to be a singer, another sits next to a ticket booth as if waiting to greet a customer. But the common element is that these are young people dancing to Western music, much like the people on the other side of the Pacific.
“It was the hottest place in town,” Paget says. “Then basically all clubs close within a short time. I don’t know if that was within a few weeks or months. But everything came to an end; With the war effort, dancing to American jazz music was no longer considered a good Japanese citizen on the home front.”
So what do we know about the people depicted in the paintings?
Paget emphasizes that the women’s identities are not known for certain, but she can make an educated guess as to what life might have been like for them.
At this point, just before World War II, there were limited opportunities for women to work outside the home.
“This isn’t a job for a young woman from a good background, unless she’s a complete rebel,” Paget says. “It’s like bar work. It occupies a rather ambiguous territory. But in a changing world, this presented a range of opportunities for women who wanted or needed to be self-sufficient.
“Maybe it was better than working as a waitress in a coffee shop. And maybe not.”
Even the name of the club is a bit of an anachronism.
You may be wondering what exactly the people of Japan knew about Florida in 1930, and the answer probably isn’t much.
The name “Ballroom Florida” comes from a popular nightclub in Paris, and Paget says it has a double meaning.
“It’s an idea of the exotic,” she says. “Why do you call it ‘Ballroom Florida’ after a Parisian nightclub named after the state of Florida? What’s happening? I think there’s an element of escape and glamour; it promotes the sort of Parisian chic and also like that promise of a tropical world.
“There’s all these good things; what a great place to spend a night.”
Each of the paintings is in the shape of a fan, but Paget says they would not have been used that way. They are way too big and unwieldy for that. And for decades, the only way to see these paintings was to look up.
According to Paget, they adorned the ceiling of a Tokyo hotel called Meguro Gajoen until the mid-1980s, when they were dismantled as part of a renovation project.
They were sold to a private art collector and later found their way into the Ringling family collection.
The paintings, as you can see, had fallen out of favor. But all these years later, they’re back in fashion.
“They went through a period when these kinds of paintings of modern women weren’t fashionable in Japan,” says Paget. “Maybe they thought, ‘This is cheesy. This is an abomination.’ They wanted to see beautiful women in kimonos.’ But now everyone would love to have these. But they can’t have them because we have them.”
The artworks, so valuable and so rare, are on view until September 25, after which Paget says they will be placed back in storage for five years to preserve them.
Interestingly, these six paintings have not been exhibited together since their time in Japan.
Paget says three of them were part of a traveling exhibition in 2012, but to see all six together you’d have to go back in time to Meguro Gajoen decades ago.
The paintings are not the only works of art on display.
Paget says the museum was able to acquire some of the actual tokens used to pay taxi dancers, and the exhibit also houses several furnishings that would have been part of the same era in Japan.
The exhibit also lists some of the American musicians and songs that would have played at Ballroom Florida during its brief reign as one of Tokyo’s hotspots.
Furnishings, all from a private collection in St Petersburg, include lacquered boxes and vases, and there’s even a luxurious smoking set from around the same period.
“These are not the things that would be displayed in the dance hall. It’s more for the home,” says Paget. “I chose these particular pieces from the collection because they kind of fit with some of the themes you see in Ballroom Florida.”
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