These six paintings have come across an ocean and across a continent, and collectively they represent a world that only existed for a brief moment in time. Perhaps most interestingly, this marks the first time that 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 that depict women who may have frequented the dance hall that lends the exhibit its title.
These paintings represented a diversion in the mores of Japanese art, which had traditionally portrayed women in traditional poses. But Chikatoshi painted contemporary women in Western garb as glamorous, and he captured the brief moment of the Jazz Age in Japan.
Rhiannon Paget, curator for Asian Art at the Ringling Museum, says that Chikatoshi’s paintings are an example of the Japanese art style of Bijin-ga, which depicts beautiful people.
“That’s a genre that goes back hundreds of years,” Paget says of Bijin-ga. “But what’s interesting about Enomoto Chikatoshi is rather than doing this kind of demure, old-fashioned women as a lot of his peers were doing, he made them fashionable. He put them in contemporary western clothes. He gave them bobs. He made them look like they were doing cool stuff that modern women wanted to, representing kind of an aspirational lifestyle.”
Chikatoshi, while working in the 20’s and 30’s, was very much an artist of his time.
And because of the chaotic nature of the world at that point, it was a time that wouldn’t last.
"Ballroom Florida" opened in 1928, and Paget says the scene would disappear as quickly as it emerged.
That makes Chikatoshi’s paintings more than just art; they’re historical postcards.
“In the late 19th century, there was a period of really rapid westernization,” says Paget. “By the 1930’s, their relationships with a lot of Europe and America are getting [strained]. They've already invaded China; they are defining their own type of modernism.
"They're setting their own natural identity, which means they can enjoy these westernized lifestyle aspects. Women are enjoying a lot more social freedom. But they're still very Japanese. They keep their own traditions and create new traditions. They're quite nationalistic at this point of time.”
Paget says the women in the paintings were likely taxi dancers who worked at the ballroom and would dance with men for a fee. Some of the women are depicted wearing jewelry. One of the women depicted appears to be a singer, and another sits next to a ticket booth as if she’s waiting to greet a customer. But the unifying element is that these are young people who are dancing to Western music quite similar to the way people did across the Pacific.
“It was the hottest place in town,” says Paget. “Then basically all the clubs close within a short period of time. I don’t know if that was within a few weeks or months. But it all came to an end; With the war effort, it was no longer deemed becoming of a good Japanese citizen on the homefront to be dancing to American jazz music.”
So what do we know about the people depicted in the paintings?
Paget stresses that the identifies of the women are not clearly known, but she’s able to make an informed guess about what the life may have been like for them.
For women at this point in time right before World War 2, there were limited options for working outside the home.
“This is not a job for a young woman of a good family unless she’s a complete rebel,” says Paget. “It’s like bar work. It does occupy quite an ambiguous territory. But in a changing world, this offered a range of options to women who wanted to or had to support themselves.
"Maybe it was better than working as a waitress in a cafe. And maybe it wasn’t.”
Even the name of the club is a bit of an anachronism.
You may wonder what exactly people in Japan knew about Florida in 1930, and the answer is probably not much.
The name "Ballroom Florida" came from a popular nightclub in Paris, and Paget says it had a double meaning.
“It’s an idea of the exotic,” she says. “Why do you call it 'Ballroom Florida' after a Parisian nightclub which is named after Florida state? What’s going on? I think there's an element of escape and glamour; it encourages the sort of Parisian chic and also like this promise of a tropical world.
"There’s all these good things; what a great place to go and enjoy a night out.”
Each of the paintings is in the shape of a fan, but Paget says they wouldn’t have been used that way. They're way too large and unwieldy for that. And for decades, the only way you could see these paintings was by looking up.
Paget says they adorned the ceiling of a Tokyo hotel called the Meguro Gajoen until the mid-1980’s, when they were taken down as part of a renovation project.
They were sold to a private art collector, and they later found their way to the Ringling’s collection.
The paintings, you see, had fallen out of favor. But all these years later, they’re back in vogue.
“They went through a stage where these kinds of paintings of modern women were not fashionable in Japan,” says Paget. “They might’ve thought, ‘That is tacky. That 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 precious and so rare, are on display through September 25, and Paget says that after that they will be placed back into storage for five years to preserve them.
Interestingly, these six paintings have not been displayed together since their time in Japan.
Paget says that three of them were part of a touring exhibition in 2012, but to have seen all six of them together, you’d have to go back in time to Meguro Gajoen decades ago.
The paintings aren’t the only pieces of art on display.
Paget says that the museum was able to acquire some of the actual tokens that taxi dancers would be paid with, and the exhibit also houses several home furnishings that would’ve been part of the same era in Japan.
The exhibit also lists some of the American musical artists and songs that would have been played in "Ballroom Florida" during its brief reign as one of Tokyo’s hotspots.
The furnishings, which all come from a private collection, include lacquered boxes and vases, and there’s even a luxury smoking set from roughly the same time frame.
“These are not the kinds of things that would be on display in the dance hall. This is more like for the home,” says Paget. “I chose these particular pieces from the collection because they sort of tie in with some of the themes that you see with the 'Ballroom Florida.'”