The Complete Commercial Artist

Hamada Masuji is not a name that often comes up in conversations about early 20th century graphic design.

Most canonical books, exhibitions, and other curations that focus on the period between the turn of the century and the Second World War center around familiar names such as Jan Tschichold, Herbert Matter, and Herbert Bayer.

Most of these narratives also center around graphic design emanating from Europe and the U.S.

However, as Hamada Masuji’s monumental Gendai shōgyō bijutsu Zenshū (The Complete Commercial Artist) attests, much important work was being done outside of the Western Hemisphere in countries such as Japan during this time period as well.

Background

The years between the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905) and the invasion of Manchuria (1931–1932) represent a period of rapid change in Japan, where industrialization was well underway at the turn of the century.

Beginning in 1912 with the reign of Emperor Taishō, the country became much more liberal following decades of authoritarian rule under Emperor Meiji.

The Taishō period also led to a more prominent presence on the international stage and ultimately opened the door to further westernization of Japanese society.

The Western world’s influence found its way into music, films, fashion, art, design, and the culture at-large so that by the 1920s, Tokyo was having its own version of the roaring twenties alongside Paris and New York City.

Illustration of decorative Japanese interior
Illustration from The Complete Commercial Artist, Vol. 5, 1929;
Via Jim Heimann Collection

A Shift Towards Modernity

Masuji, who began his artistic life as an oil painter, turned to commercial art as a way to fund his education.

Like many of his peers who studied to be fine artists, he was keenly aware of the new opportunities that materialized with the burgeoning consumer culture.

Department stores and manufacturing companies needed “effective visual and verbal strategies to advertise and market their products,” wrote Gennifer Weisenfeld in Being Modern in Japan.

“Together with a broad range of activist-designers, Masuji and his colleagues in the Association of Commercial Artists spearheaded a movement to construct a new social status for design, legitimizing commercial art as a significant area of artistic practice.”

Illustration of decorative Japanese interior
Illustration from The Complete Commercial Artist, Vol. 5, 1929;
Via Jim Heimann Collection

Role of the Graphic Artist

This movement culminated with The Complete Commercial Artist, a 24-volume series published from 1928–1930, which brought together dozens of examples of modernist commercial art from Japan and other countries.

Masuji served as editor and co-writer with over 60 other Japanese critics, teachers, and artists. Each installment focuses on a different aspect of commercial art, such as facades, advertising, signage, typography, and packaging.

The final volume contains a long-form essay of approximately 100 pages, which details Masuji’s philosophies on commercial art and the role of the graphic artist in society.

The study of graphic design was still in its infancy in 1928 (the term had been coined in 1922 by W. A. Dwiggins), so this publication was instrumental in defining the emerging role of the graphic artist as a skilled and respected profession in Japan.

Illustration of modern Japanese storefront
Illustration from The Complete Commercial Artist, Vol. 10, 1929;
Via Jim Heimann Collection

Practical Art

Masuji described the examples in this compendium as shōgyō bijutsu, a term used to define “practical art.”

More than just standard advertising fare, shōgyō bijutsu was meant to convey the skilled application of formalist design strategies as a means to persuade and sell goods and services effectively.

Aesthetically, it was based on avant-garde techniques developed by the Bauhaus school in Germany, Russian constructivism, and de Stijl (“the Style”) out of the Netherlands.

Masuji’s focus on the Bauhaus, in particular, can be partly attributed to one of his close collaborators on the project, the critic and painter Nakada Sadanosuke, who visited the school in 1922 and is credited with being one of the first to write about it in the Japanese press.

Also influential to Masuji was the artist Tomoyoshi Murayama, one of the founders of the Japanese art movement Mavo, who introduced him to the underlying principles of constructivism.

Conclusion

Though many other factors were at play during the interwar period, Masuji’s work as a critic and design theorist was vital to the development of modernism in Japan in the 1920s and ’30s.

His tireless efforts to spearhead this massive visual compendium also provide valuable insight into a country steeped in centuries-old traditions but eager to embrace new technologies and Western influences at the same time.

Illustration of modern Japanese street sign
Illustration from The Complete Commercial Artist, Vol. 10, 1929;
Via Jim Heimann Collection
Illustration of decorative Japanese cafe
Illustration from The Complete Commercial Artist, Vol. 10, 1929;
Via Jim Heimann Collection
Illustration for Japanese toothpaste advertisement
Illustration from The Complete Commercial Artist, Vol. 2, 1929;
Via Jim Heimann Collection