©Photo by Michele Tanabe

Tokyo Art Scene: French Influence & Elegance in Japan

Reimagining Art, Fashion And Architecture

By Michele Tanabe
October 5, 2023
Art & Culture

Fans of French design will enjoy these three exhibitions encompassing elements of high-end fashion, the art deco movement and new perspectives of the Palace of Versailles.

Creatives and art enthusiasts with a penchant for discovering fresh perspectives within established historic landmarks, fashion houses and architectural marvels are in for a treat with this month’s Tokyo Art Scene roundup. Delve into exhibitions that explore the profound impact of French elegance and influence on Japan, including Yves Saint Laurent, Across the Style at The National Art Museum Tokyo; Yasumichi Morita’s In the Praise of Shadows; and The Art Deco Garden, at Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum.

Fashion Passes, Style Remains: Yves Saint Laurent, Across the Style

© Photo by Michele Tanabe
Mondrian Dress

Walk down any shopping district in Tokyo and without much effort, you’ll find the glittering letters spelling out YSL on a chic leather bag somewhere. The fashion scene in Japan is thriving, and Yves Saint Laurent, the renowned French luxury fashion house and designer, has garnered widespread acclaim within Japan and beyond. It comes as no surprise, then, that an exhibition dedicated to the distinctive designs of Yves Saint Laurent has graced the halls of The National Art Center, Tokyo.

© Photo by Michele Tanabe
Looks across the ages

This exhibition (©︎ Musée Yves Saint Laurent Paris) is truly an extraordinary retrospective, displaying Saint Laurent’s drawings and early designs from a young age all the way into the years of his illustrious career in high fashion. A standout among his early works on display includes the Paper Couture House, a collection of paper dolls featuring breathtaking dresses and accessories. Remarkably, he conceived this visionary creation at the young age of 16. Of the 262 items showcased, some of the most notable looks combine features of utilitarian menswear into elegant everyday womenswear, using items like trench coats, jumpsuits, tailored suits and the Safari Jacket as their framework.

© Photo by Michele Tanabe
“Les Iris” jacket from an evening ensemble-Homage to Vincent van Gogh Spring-summer 1988 haute couture collection

As important as the garments themselves, accessories share the spotlight deeper into the exhibition. Visitors will find a Cabinet of Jewels featuring 36 exquisite pieces of jewelry and accessories that have been paired with various couture collections over the years. While photography is generally restricted throughout the exhibit, you’ll have the chance to capture some of Saint Laurent’s most iconic creations in one of the final exhibition rooms. Memorable pieces like the Les Iris jacket, which draws inspiration from Vincent van Gogh’s art, and the Mondrian Dress, paying homage to the artist Piet Mondrian, are among the designs you can immortalize through photography.

Yasumichi Morita’s In Praise of Shadows

© Photo by Michele Tanabe
Entrance to In Praise of Shadows

Located right in the heart of Ginza, Chanel Nexus Hall has served as a prestigious venue for emerging artists and musicians since its establishment in 2004. The entrance to the venue may seem a bit intimidating, complete with a private entrance and a suit-clad elevator operator, yet the glitz and glam of the locale is a necessary accompaniment to this hauntingly beautiful showcase of Yasumichi Morita’s photographs of the Palace of Versailles. 

© Photo by Michele Tanabe
Morita’s illuminated photographs highlight shadows and reflections

In this exhibition, Yasumichi Morita presents a strikingly personal collection of black-and-white photographs set against the backdrop of Versailles’ historic walls. Each piece plays with the rich interplay of edgy shadows and radiant beams of sunlight. This perspective of light and dark serves as a refreshing departure from the familiar, giving viewers the sensation of encountering Versailles for the first time.

© Photo by Michele Tanabe
Walk along the exhibition path and find images of the palace in a new light

Morita’s unique talent lies in his ability to capture the essence of a well-known subject and transform it into a distinctly personal viewpoint. With photos capturing intimate scenes, like peering through a keyhole, it’s impossible not to imagine yourself a voyeur within the hushed walls of royalty.

Exploring the Aesthetic Fruit of the Residence of Prince Asaka 

© Photo by Michele Tanabe
Works highlighting arts du jardin

Ever heard arts du jardin? If you haven’t, don’t worry, unless you’re a French speaker or a garden enthusiast, you may not have come across the term. Translated as “art of the garden” this expression perfectly encapsulates the theme of Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum’s exhibition, The Art Deco Garden. While the museum has meticulously curated a dazzling showcase of 150 works of art, it’s evident that the structure housing these pieces was thoughtfully designed to create an environment complementing the Art-Deco-inspired ambiance.

© Photo by Michele Tanabe
Illustration of the Asaka residence’s Great Hall

Fascinated with design elements from the Art Deco movement during his travels overseas, Prince Asaka (1887-1981) brought on a team of architects including Henri Rapin, a French painter, illustrator and designer, to construct a residence for his family highlighting his favored ornamental features. The building, virtually unaltered, now stands as the Teien Metropolitan Museum of Art.

© Photo by Michele Tanabe
Sketches of various rooms inside the Asaka residence

The exhibition is divided into three categories: “The Gardens Depicted by Henri Rapin,” “The Prince Asaka Residence and its Gardens,” and “Art Deco and ‘Arts du Jardins’.” As you stroll through the same hallways and corridors once graced by the imperial family, you may find yourself transported back in time to a bygone era. The feeling is heightened as you admire the intricate architectural features, such as the grand hall’s overhead lights or the selected works that reflect Arts du Jardin in the Annex. Take your time exploring this peaceful museum and if time allows, enjoy a relaxing cup of tea or coffee in the museum cafe.

For further information on the museum and its gardens, read Tokyo’s Greatest Art Deco Masterpiece to Date.

Which of these three French-inspired exhibitions do you plan on visiting first? I don’t know about you, but I think I’ll be heading straight back to YSL’s exhibition to nab the exclusive canvas tote bag I wished I had purchased the first time around.


Isa says:

While I no longer live in Tokyo, this article makes me feel like I’m enjoying these exhibits in-person. Thoroughly enjoyed the read and look forward to future articles!

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