Like a Futurist manifesto on Pop art, these Japanese kimono textiles from the 1930s are both every schoolboy’s dream outfit and at the same time quite shocking.  Even though it’s on the television news every day, the juxtapositions of cuddly toys with exploding missiles are, nowadays, blatant  provocation to our refined sensibilities.  If we learnt anything from graphic art during the twentieth century it was that sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words.  James Rosenquist, who was an advertising billboard artist in the ‘fifties before he painted F1-11 during the Vietnam war, knew this *:

F1-11 (detail). 1964-65. James Rosenquist.

Although on one level the textiles also remind me of works by Jeff Koons or Takashi Murakami — to mention just one of the current Japanese artists who’re using comic imagery for their own purposes — the difference is that these earlier artists were pushing war as a good thing, just as some comic genres have always romanticised  and aestheticised warfare **.  One irony of this, compared to the deliberate irony in Rosenquist’s F1-11, is that the work was made in 1937; in other words, it’s exactly contemporary with the Japanese army’s Rape of Nanking.

It’s extraordinary that they managed to get the images to work so well as textile designs.  It’s difficult to print or weave large figurative images and still be able to call the end product a piece of cloth and not a painting.  I’ve tried it myself and I know what I’m talking about.  These Japanese kimonos work by combining the pictures with flat colours and small patterns made into bold stripes and circles.

They are from an exhibition in St Petersburg, but if you can’t get there very many of the extraordinary images (better than these, even) can be seen at Poemas del rio Wang.

* Not to belabour Rosenquist’s point, but some of the same companies that were producing light bulbs and hair dryers and plastics for the American market were also bombing the shit out of Vietnamese children and making nuclear weapons.

** There’s also a lot of Tin-Tin-like imagery, including a couple of dogs next to the lower image that you can see properly at Poemas del rio Wang.