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Cover girl: Shiseido underwrote Face to Face and opened up its extensive archives.Photo: courtesy of New York University Grey Art Gallery

Walking through Face to Face: Shiseido and the Manufacture of Beauty, 1900- 2000, you may feel more like you’re in a cosmetics store than in an art museum. New York University’s Grey Art Gallery presents display cases of skin creams, perfumes, and powders instead of sculptures; newspaper ads and posters instead of paintings or photographs hang on the walls. A video monitor runs decades of television ads promoting the newest products from Shiseido, one of the most shrewdly tasteful and design-conscious cosmetics firms in the world. Moving past all the stylish products and ads documenting many of the ways in which Japanese women have painted, powdered, teased, and combed themselves into one or another image of desire during the past 100 years, you almost expect a salesperson to daub the back of your hand with perfume or instruct women about an appropriate eye shadow or rouge. But the products can only be looked at; the Grey is indeed a museum, and the exhibition is far more artful in its treatment of this giant of the beauty industry than it may at first seem.

All the material comes from the massive archives of Shiseido, the best-known Japanese cosmetics firm and – according to Lynn Gumpert, director of the Grey, curator of the exhibition, and longtime observer of Asian art and culture – the only one that has attained the status of international corporate powerhouse. Through its publications and exhibitions and its rapid assimilation of cultural currents in the United States and Europe, Shiseido has, from the beginning, portrayed itself as a business attuned to the most vital Western cultural trends. It has been remarkably successful in making generations of Japanese women, and more recently some men, believe that by buying its products, they belong to the present. Because of our unbreakable connection with Western newness and youth, it says to its customers, you can in effect become shareholders in modernity and participants in the American dream. Like Americans, you can make yourself over from scratch.

The show includes a wealth of fresh material, including Japanese woodblock prints that are beautiful and loaded with information about nineteenth-century Japanese conceptions of appearance and beauty, and interest in Western customs and dress. The 1877 prints by Yoshitoshi Tsukioka show a happy geisha at her toilette at different hours of the morning, relishing the joys of applying powder or brushing her teeth with steaming-hot water. An 1888 print by Shinsui Inoue provides a snapshot of the Ginza district in central Tokyo, where Shiseido began. Its streets are lined with people strolling in Western suits or Japanese kimonos, in full bustle even then.

These woodcuts are from the densest part of the exhibition, devoted to the Meiji period (1868-1912), when Japan was emerging from 200 years of isolation and the government essentially institutionalized commercial and social interactions with the West. Shiseido was founded in 1872 as a pharmaceutical company. A newspaper ad from 1877 includes the English words chemists and druggists and the German word apotheke. In 1915, Shinzo Fukuhara, the third son of the founder and a graduate of Columbia University, took over the firm and changed its focus to cosmetics. Since then, Shiseido has linked good looks and good health, promoting cosmetics as a surefire means to a modern – read Western – lifestyle. Even when it made use of Japanese icons, as it did in its appropriation of a famous Hokusai image of Mount Fuji and its references to Zen Buddhism in its sixties posters for “Zen Perfume,” it selected icons well known and admired in the West.

One of the keys to Shiseido’s success is that it has always known how far to go without seeming immodest or craven. Even when its designs are bold, they are never intrusive; when it uses sex to sell a product – as it has done increasingly since 1980, when Serge Lutens, a former star at Christian Dior, was brought in to develop a new global image – Shiseido’s profile is knowing and restrained. When it is naughty, it is naughty lite. “Untied” is a 1996 men’s fragrance whose name promotes the idea of the Japanese – or is it American? – businessman ripping off his tie and letting go. The slightly bent but essentially erect bottle, its cap seemingly ready to lift with the slightest pressure, promises instant, guilt-free release. Shiseido has been masterful in creating the impression that it is incapable of arousing criticism or concern, and that its products are playful and good for you.

The Grey’s handling of the Shiseido material is itself shrewd and restrained. In addition to funding this exhibition at a time when it is trying to raise its international profile, Shiseido contributed $500,000 to the Grey’s endowment, a huge sum for a university museum. Clearly, the kind of critical examination that would be expected if a museum were documenting a defunct corporation is not possible here. The show’s most serious weakness is that it doesn’t even raise the issue of the difficulty of getting inside a Japanese corporation; by the end, we know no more about Shiseido’s operations and the people who run it than we did at the beginning. But that does not mean there’s no critical edge. Gumpert knew that the very act of presenting these objects in a university meant they would invite close study. She has also actively built questions into the exhibition. In its center are around 80 large photographs of young Japanese women spanning the past 100 years. Printed on four horizontal Plexiglas arcs supported by metal rods, they reflect the show’s four chronological sections (Meiji period, twenties and thirties, sixties and seventies, 1965 to the present). Together, the four curves suggest the four lines of an x, a form that implies both targeted focus and cancellation.

These photographs from the Shiseido archives reveal the investigation of images of young women that have helped the company locate the longings and trends that inform its products. They are black-and-white; some have the graininess and lack of focus common in photographs from memorials. The people in them are anonymous. The archival dimension of this display contrasts sharply with the obsession with youth and newness in the rest of the show. Even the smiling, happy people documented in the photographs seem like specimens or trophies. “Face to Face” does in fact celebrate a stylish and influential company. But it also leaves us with a heightened awareness of the coldness, scrupulousness, and hypersensitivity of Shiseido’s corporate eye.

Mark Stevens is on a six-month leave.

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