Ryuichi Yamashiro, Forest, 1955. Collection Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam

Work / Graphic Design

A glimpse at the 226 Japanese posters on display at Stedelijk Museum

In celebration of the late Japanese graphic designer Shigeru Watano (1937-2012), the Stedelijk Museum has collected and curated 226 Japanese posters that are now on display in the Gallery of Honor. Shigeru lived in the Netherlands and was for many years an essential link between the Stedelijk and various Japanese designers – the museum acquired many Japanese posters and received a number of donations from artists across Japan. As a result, the gallery has gathered some of the best of those works in its newly-opened exhibition, entitled Colorful Japan, for the general public to enjoy until 2 February 2020.

Colorful Japan was curated by Carolien Glazenburg who says she wanted to give back to and honour a loyal friend of the museum. “Shigeru Watano worked as a graphic designer in Amsterdam,” she tells It’s Nice That. “He was a go-between, an ambassador for Japan and the Netherlands. It was with his help that the museum exhibited the work of graphic designer Tadanori Yokoo in 1974 at the Stedelijk, which was Yokoo’s first exhibition in Europe. I wanted to thank Watano posthumously for his lifetime efforts to enrich our collections and for introducing Dutch graphic design in Japan.” Colorful Japan showcases a range of Japan’s best graphic design from various time periods – the oldest poster dates to 1937, and the most recent from 2018 – with work by designers including Hiroshi Ochi, Yusaku Kamekura, Mitsuo Katsui, Ken Miki and Eiko Ishioka. One wall of the exhibition is devoted exclusively to renowned graphic designer and artist, Yokoo.

“I hope visitors admire the beauty of each poster, the high quality of printing, the way each poster communicates its message – which is different from the European way – and the amazing use of colour,” Carolien says. “We had to pick 226 posters out of 800 in our collection. The selection is not installed chronologically, but rather on colour and image.” Perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects of Colorful Japan is the way it shines a light on the cultural relativity of advertising. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that posters became widely used to promote goods and services in Japan. The posters on display at Stedelijk Museum differ in tone and colouring, representing a large range of communicative styles. The exhibition also draws attention to the ways in which Japanese designers explore visual language differently to that found in Europe. “Japanese visual culture,” the exhibition’s website states, “is less direct and more nuanced, very often poetic”.

When asked about her favourite posters, Carolien replies: “The Awazu because of its colour and the way the designer has treated the subject. It’s so complicated but very well done. The Yamashiro is iconic in the simple way he has treated the subject matter. It’s an example of elegance. I’d also say that the bird and the lions from Nagai are very impressive. The lions is unique in its minimalism and the bird covers the whole surface of its poster. Finally, I’d say that the face of the actor depicted in Tanaka’s poster is a wonderful example of Japanese designers’ interest in Swiss aesthetics; the colourful squares and the depiction of a portrait using simple linework on a page make it an iconic poster in the history of Japanese graphic design.”


Ikko Tanaka, Noh Performance, 1958. Collection Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam


Kazumasa Nagai, Himeji Shirotopia Exhibition 1989, 1988. Collection Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam


Kazumasa Nagai, Human Rights – Living Together, 1989. Collection Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam


Kiyoshi Awazu, The 5th Exhibition of Contemporary Japanese Sculpture, 1973. Collection Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam


Yusaku Kamekura, Nikon SP, 1957. Collection Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam


Tadahito Nadamoto, A story about the bomb, 1969. Collection Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam


Shigeo Fukuda, Victory, 1976. Collection Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam


Colorful Japan. Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, 2019. Photo: Gert Jan van Rooij


Colorful Japan. Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, 2019. Photo: Gert Jan van Rooij