Art Deco and Tribal Masks

The trip to the Toguri Art Museum was not the first art tour I had taken with Alice Gordenker. I had taken one the week before at the newly Metropolitan Teien Art Museum. Masks from the Musée du quai Branly in Paris are currently on display in the prince’s old residence. Wow! Beauty overload! How else do I explain the beauty of this Art Deco residence that was custom built by a French architect with French and Japanese craftspeople, including Rene Lalique for one, and that provided an elegant backdrop for the powerful images of the masks from all over the world? If you want a glimpse, Tokyo Dandy and the Asahi Shimbun have a few photos from a tour for the press I assume.


I was not so lucky as to have press privileges but I will not complain. Gordenker, as usual, is passionate and knowledgeable about her topics. She makes history come alive. She has fantastic stories to share. I did manage to sneak a picture through the window from the garden outside. You can only see the rear of the masks, but you can get an idea how unusual the placement of the masks was. Who places museum-quality artifacts near a window with the sun shining through? The masks are sprinkled throughout the house. You can also see the hand-painted mural on the far wall and two of several specially commissioned light fixtures, many by Lalique. Can you imagine living here?


The sign below the Lalique glass window at the front entrance says pictures are forbidden, but I was outside the building and…I could not resist. It would be impossible for me to get a photo of reproduction quality with my smart phone at that distance, so I thought it might be acceptable. I have seen lamps and vases by Rene Lalique in museums and galleries but I have never seen an entire wall!

Prince Yasuhiko and his wife lived in France during the 1920s, which was when Art Deco was extremely popular in Paris. They were fascinated by the beauty of this art style and commissioned a French, not Japanese, architect named Henri Rapin to design the interior of their residence that Japanese architect Gondo Yokichi was commissioned to make. The patterns of bothFrench Art Deco and traditional Japanese motifs blended together. Soon after the family moved in, the princess passed away. In a way, the Teien residence is Japan’s version of the Taj Mahal, and represents the love of a Japanese prince and  princess. Isn’t that romantic?

So why tribal masks? Remember that many African countries were originally colonies of France. African culture greatly influenced post-Impressionists such as Picasso. It makes sense when you stop to think about it.


The statue of the dodo sitting beside a courtyard pool (taken through the window) does not make sense though. Why a dodo? Why is the dodo outside by a pool? Why by a courtyard where visitors are not allowed (or so I think)? Dodos are not in Japanese art that I know of and not in any Art Deco either. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was published in English more than fifty years before so probably did not influence the artwork commissioned for this house, right? Was Dodo the nickname for somebody in the royal family?  It is a mystery.

Less of a mystery are the shishi (lion dogs) also known as koma-inu. Shishi are protectors who have the magical ability to repel evil spirits.


Always in pairs, one will have its mouth closed to make the “N” sound. That is the last letter in the Japanese and Sanskrit alphabets. It holds a ball or sacred Buddhist jewel that can bring light to banish darkness and also grant wishes. This one is extra special because it is a ball encased in another one.


The other one in the pair is supposed to have its mouth open, but I am not too sure about this one. I cannot remember if the side of its mouth was open to make the “Ah” sound, which is also the sound of the first letter in the Japanese and Sanskrit alphabets. This one is holding a baby! That is unusual but yet, the second one that I have seen in two months. The other one I saw in Yatsushiro, Kumamoto. Since it can banish evil spirits, it is thought to also protect babies and women in childbirth. Perfect for a family residence, right?


IMG_8039I do want to go back to see the gardens. Many of the trees were quite old. It might be nice and shady on a hot summer’s day. Right before the rainy season started, the hydrangea and the gardenias were blooming. The perfume filled the air. If only their scent and all the beauty that surrounded them could be captured in a bottle…



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