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Yasuo Kuniyoshi: Centennial Retrospective Exhibition

by Alexandra_Munroe on May 13, 1989

Originally published in Yasuo Kuniyoshi Centennial Retrospective Exhibition. Reproduced by permission of the publisher.


The War Years and Their Aftermath: 1940-1953

The Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 launched the United States into World War II and incited, among a stunned American public, calls for reprisal. Overnight, Yasuo Kuniyoshi’s status in America—he was still by law a Japanese citizen—changed from “resident alien” to “enemy alien.” Shortly after, he reported to the local police precinct where he turned in his camera, binoculars and radio.[1] Placed under house arrest, he chose to live full-time at his studio at 30 East 14th Street (rather than stay at his Washington Square apartment[2]). The United States Treasury Department, acting under the War Powers Act, impounded his bank funds and the Justice Department asked that he thereafter give advance notice of his travels.”[3]As you probably realize, the world condition as it is today, has in my particular case produced a very awkward and trying situation,” Kuniyoshi wrote to his friend George Biddle on December 11. “A few short days has changed my status in this country, although I myself have not changed at all.”[4]

For several years, Kuniyoshi had been watching the rise of Japanese militarism and the army’s successive expansion in the Far East. While most American artists were concerned with the menace of fascism in Europe and were organizing antifascist activities directed at Franco, Hitler and Mussolini, Kuniyoshi was equally aware of the political portent of Japan’s imperialist and ultranationalist regime that was being advanced in the name of Hirohito. The Mukden Incident of 1931 which led to the Japanese conquest of Manchuria, Japan’s signing of an Anti-Comintern Pact with Nazi Germany in 1936, the persistent aggression in China and finally the atrocious massacre in Nanking in 1937 were all events which deeply troubled Kuniyoshi and eventually opposed him to the Japanese militarist government.

Kuniyoshi’s protest against fascist repression and war, in Japan and elsewhere, had grown steadily more outspoken during the 1930s. In 1936, for example, he became a member of the American Artists’ Congress, a “Popular Front”[5] organization formed by liberal artists who, in the words of its chairman Stuart Davis, “realize the real threat of fascism.”[6] The Congress organized annual antifascist exhibitions, condemned censorship at home and undertook projects to raise money for Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War. In 1940, Kuniyoshi is reported in the World Telegram newspaper to have publically protested against the Japanese military aggression in China,[7] and in May of 1941 he donated the proceeds from his retrospective exhibition at the Downtown Gallery to the United China Relief Fund, a charity organized  to assist Chinese civilian victims of the Japanese invasion.

When Pearl Harbor was bombed, Kuniyoshi reiterated his condemnation of Japan’s actions and his loyalty to America and the democratic system. Artists, patrons and friends rallied to his support. An American Group, Inc., a society of established artists of which Kuniyoshi was president, issued the following letter to President Roosevelt on December 19, 1941 and distributed copies to the press:

Two of our members, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, our president, and Chuzo Tamotzu, being Japanese by birth, are unfortunately placed in a difficult position right now. They have both lived in the United States for many years and are closely identified with the American art world in which they have distinguished reputations. Both of them share with the rest of us a sense of outrage and abhorrence at the treacherous Japanese attack on the United States.[8]

Eventually, Kuniyoshi was cleared and released from house arrest. His prominence in the American art world and the circumstances of his emigration thirty-five years before made his case anomalous, and fortunate. Thousands of other Japanese-Americans, primarily on the West coast, were subsequently interned in camps.[9] This situation, together with the popular anti-Japanese sentiments that increased with each new report of atrocities committed by the Japanese army, made Kuniyoshi feel uncomfortable, insecure and even guilty. According to Anne Helioff (Mrs. Ben Hirschberg), who served as Kuniyoshi’s class monitor at the Art Students League during the war years, he became apprehensive about going out alone and especially of riding the subways. Anxious about “being attacked” because of his Japanese appearance, he used to call her to chaperone him around town.[10] “The blow struck by Japan upon this nation became a very personal one, as if I had stretched out my hand and committed the act myself,” Kuniyoshi wrote in 1944. “I know the sting of segregation and the look that condemns one as an enemy.”[11]

Kuniyoshi’s response to World War II was profound—as an artist, as an antifascist and as one whose identity was shaken by the outbreak of hostilities between his native homeland and his “adopted home.”[12] While he had sympathized with American liberal politics during the 1930s, Kuniyoshi had never before used art as a medium for social protest or political reform. On the contrary, Lloyd Goodrich wrote in the Whitney’s 1948 Kuniyoshi retrospective catalogue, “the content of his art had been [during the 1930s] personal and amoral.”[13] In the 1940s, however, Kuniyoshi’s attitude changed. As a member of several professional artists’ groups and Japanese-American societies, he began to actively express his views on the artist’s role in war. “We cannot shut our eyes to what is happening around us, politically or economically,” Kuniyoshi said in a speech in 1944. “Unless we encourage the necessary changes, these maladjustments will inevitably lead to a 3rd World War.”[14] Kuniyoshi’s deep sense of responsibility to address the social and political situation of the 1940s prompted changes in his work. In striving to relate his art to the issues and ideals about which he felt passionately—freedom, democracy and humanism—Kuniyoshi began to experiment with a more metaphorical, even philosophical approach to his subject matter. His increasing use of symbolism and abstraction were means by which he, as an artist, could express his private vision of the world gone awry. “Our values are in a state of shock and confusion,” he wrote in 1951. “I believe an artist has a mission, the urgency to contribute to the cultural growth of a nation, no matter how small that contribution may be.”[15] The significance of Kuniyoshi’s drawings, paintings and caseins from 1940 until his death in 1953 can thus be appreciated, together with their formal aesthetic power, as poignant and historical commentaries upon the turbulent wartime years and their aftermath in America.

Kuniyoshi’s most explicit political art works are the drawings he executed in the feverish year of 1942 as designs for American propaganda posters.[16] That year, following the Pearl Harbor attack, such U.S. government agencies as the Office of War Information (OWI) and the Office of Emergency Management began to commission artists to design posters and war bond advertisements in a propaganda campaign that was intended “to enlist the help of artists who wish to work with us in the pictorial presentation of war information.”[17] In a letter inviting him to design posters for the U.S. government, OWI president and well-known author and Librarian of Congress, Archibald MacLeish, wrote to Kuniyoshi:

“We need to describe the enemy more fully, what his intentions are, how he looks. We suggest that you might care to work on the Japanese enemy.”[18] Kuniyoshi replied: “I have always wanted to do everything I could to serve the war effort…I’d like very much to do the ‘Japanese enemy’ poster…”[19]

Kuniyoshi’s first attempts depicted theatrical and menacing­looking samurai—a caricature of the traditional Japanese warrior. The OWI rejected these and requested “a poster on the recent Japanese atrocities—the water cure, for example.”[20] Kuniyoshi immediately set to work on a series of drawings, unprecedented in his oeuvre for their violent imagery. Rendered with his typically sensitive line and subtle modeling, Kuniyoshi depicted the torture, rape and killing of men, women and children at the hands of Japanese soldiers. Of the several drawings he submitted, two were published as posters. Torture presents the rear view of a male prisoner, whose bound wrists extend behind his muscular, naked back which is slashed with open wounds. A “symbol of the unconquered prisoner,” Tom Wolf has written, “his twisting shoulders and squirming hands communicate his struggle for freedom.’”[21] In another drawing, Deliver Us From Evil, a woman lies on the ground with a bayonet thrust into her side, from which a Japanese flag hangs in morbid victory. A dead baby lies by her side and in the background, another corpse lies face downward with his hands tied behind his back. Gene Thornton, a student of Kuniyoshi’s at the Art Students League and later an art critic, has commented on this series of Kuniyoshi’s war drawings:

I remember wondering for a moment how Yas must have felt making such damning pictures of his own people, but the thought passed fast…. Thirty years have passed during which time we have seen much worse, yet those wartime drawings still have the power to shock. It is clear now that they were not just about that war and the Japanese but about deliberately organized brutality that all wars foster among all peoples. It is also clear that this is how Kuniyoshi meant them even then.[22]

Besides his work for the OWI, Kuniyoshi was involved with other anti-war activities. Twice, he volunteered to speak to the Japanese people via U.S. shortwave radio broadcasts. “In your comparatively recent adoption of the civilization of the West, your powerful leaders were attracted more than anything else by military prowess,” Kuniyoshi said. “They imitated the great democracies of the West in everything but the very thing that made those countries great: democracy…. The democratic ideal has been fought for in the past, and it is being defended now by the United Nations against the barbaric military aggressiveness of your country and Nazi Germany.”[23] For the Art Students League United Nations Ball in April of  that same year, Kuniyoshi made a huge caricture of Emperor Hirohito which was displayed beside similar satirical drawings of Hitler and Mussolini by League artists George Grosz and Jon Corbino.

Sara Mazo Kuniyoshi makes it very clear that her husband was never “anti-Japanese” per se; he loved his homeland and was proud of his cultural heritage. Rather, she explains that his intention in the anti-war work was a personal expression of specific “anti-militarist” sentiments. She reminds us too how the tremendous fear and uncertainty about the outcome of World War II created an atmosphere of frenzy in America during the early 1940s; an understanding of these abnormal circumstances is critical to seeing Kuniyoshi’s war drawings in perspective and context.

In 1947 Kuniyoshi wrote that “the war for the past few years has been the backdrop for a great number of my works. Not necessarily the battlefield, but the war’s implications: destruction, lifelessness, hovering between life and death, loneliness.”[24] In fact, his paintings between 1940 and 1947 are characterized by a melancholy, introspective mood and as such form a distinct group within his mature oeuvre. While Kuniyoshi continued to favor subjects of women, still life and landscape, his themes became increasingly dramatic, emotionally profound, and occult.

The languid and sensuous girls which Kuniyoshi depicted in the 1930s, for example, are replaced by images of lonely, pensive women in the forties. The young semi-nude figures of a gay cafe society, collapsed on a chaise longue in a cozy interior as in Reclining Woman (1929, cat. no. 36), give way in the later work to portraits of ordinary women dressed in day clothes, sometimes with a kerchief, daydreaming in open landscape settings, as in Thinking Ahead (1945, cat. no. 85). Feminine seduction has no place in the war years’ paintings: These women seem occupied instead by ennui or sorrow. Perhaps Kuniyoshi was alluding to the anguish caused by the war in Mother and Daughter (1945, cat. no. 89) which portrays a moment of intense emotional pain. Among Kuniyoshi’s last paintings of women before he turned to carnival themes in the late 1940s is The Widow (1948, cat. no. l04). After the young girl, mistress, wife and mother, Kuniyoshi depicts here an old woman cloaked in black standing in a strange outdoor setting. Kuniyoshi’s life-long preoccupation with women as a subject for his art thus evolves during the war years from images of youthful romance to ones of mature hardship and mourning.

Kuniyoshi’s still lifes of the early 1940s reflect a similar stylistic and thematic shift. His choice of broken, decaying and torn objects suggests an ephemeral and precarious reality, while his arrangements recall totems of personal emblems. As his approach becomes more psychological, his treatment of form and space becomes more abstract and imaginary. Upside Down Table and Mask (1940, cat. no. 67), the first of Kuniyoshi’s major wartime still lifes, can be interpreted as a prophetic response to the global state of disorder and upheaval. He later wrote:

If a man feels very deeply about the war, or any sorrow or gladness, his feeling should be symbolized in his expression, no· matter what medium he chooses. Let us say still life. Still life is out of mode right now, but you can use symbols to say clearly how the sorrow or gladness is felt deeply in your heart , although the physical expression of it is just life…[25]

Kuniyoshi’s use of symbols within his still life arrangements, however, rarely alluded to an explicit current event. Rather, he sought to express the general mood that things around him were “broken, worn. used up…rotting.”[20] A few months after Room 110 (1944, cat. no. 83) was awarded the prestigious first prize at the Carnegie Institute’s 1944 annual juried painting show and then sarcastically criticized in the Pittsburgh papers for depicting a “Pile  of Junk”[27] Kuniyoshi defended the meaning  of his still life arrangements in his “Autobiographical Remarks”:

I have assiduously collected throughout the years numerous objects of various shapes, textures and colors because of their special appeal to me, and with the thought of using them in my painting. My approach to these objects, for painting purposes, is from the psychological as well as the emotional viewpoint, setting them in a relationship and environment that creates an association stemming from personal experience. Room 110 has no story. If there is a story it is one of complexities, dealing with elimination and destruction, pictorially re-created as a reflection of my life.[28]

Kuniyoshi’s attitude to nature—a fusion of objective reality and subjective, emotional experience—is revealed to some degree in all of his wartime work, but the landscape paintings of the 1940s are perhaps the most cogent expression of the artist’s credo. “For me, reality is a starting point and at the same time a point of departure,” Kuniyoshi wrote. “Feeling, imagination and intuition mingled with reality creates more than actuality, evokes an inner meaning indicative of one’s experience, time, circumstance and environment.”[29] The area to which he was drawn for inspiration was the American West and Southwest: Its vast, rugged terrain, its dramatic skies and desolate mining and cowboy towns appealed to him. He responded to this landscape especially during the forties: “I like those ghost towns, deserted places,” he remarked in 1944.[30]

Kuniyoshi traveled west in 1935, 1941 and 1949. Nevadaville (1942, cat. no. 76) depicts a small, deserted town in a mountainous land, possibly Colorado. The scene is severe, yet the artist’s delicate draftsmanship, light brushstroke and luminous palette make it remote from reality. The landscape transcends its specifics of time and place and becomes a representation of transcience and desolation. The Milk Train (1940, cat. no. 68) portrays a steam­engine train travelling across an empty, flat expanse, its smokestack bellowing smoke into a blue-grey sky. In the foreground lie an abandoned automobile, two tombstones and what appears to be a broken church spire. In this work, Kuniyoshi captures the atmosphere of a somber American landscape while romanticizing its vast and mysterious terrain.

Kuniyoshi’s increasingly symbolistic figure scenes and still lifes of 1940–47 also feature landscapes as settings for his compositions. His interest in exploring a more elaborate personal iconography leads to experimentation with new pictorial devices. As he juggles the real and imaginary, he surprises the viewer. By juxtaposing incongruous objects in a shallow space, he deliberately confronts one form with an adjacent one and so creates complex spatial relationships. Compared to the straightforward studio poses and still life arrangements of the 1930s, this later work is more intellectually conceived and visually complex.

One can only conjecture how to interpret Festivities Ended (1939–47, cat. no. 102) and its related Headless Horse who Wants to Jump (1945, cat. no. 87). The former, begun at the outset of the war in Europe, depicts the grounds of a circus or fair amid an eerie rocky landscape at nightfall. The same wooden carousel horse which Kuniyoshi photographed in the late 1930s (cat. no. 170) appears gigantic in the foreground, skewered on its pole in an upside down position. A tiny man and a woman are sprawled on the ground beyond, presumably exhausted. The shadowless geometric forms of the sky, ground and edifice give the impression that the whole scene is conjured, unreal. Kuniyoshi remarked of this painting soon after he finished it that “the world is in chaos” and when the war ended he was “hoping for a new world but nothing really came.”[31]

The magnificent Headless Horse Who Wants to Jump (1945, cat. no. 87) is an equally ambitious and mystifying work. A different wooden horse, white and decorated but headless and broken, rises high on its one hind leg as if to jump. It appears leaning against a log on a cliff overlooking a cove. The ritualistic arrangement features Kuniyoshi’s OWI torture poster of the rear view of a handcuffed man. Grapes, a personal symbol for Kuniyoshi of his days as an immigrant fruit picker in California, are placed on the toy saddle over a white glove and a sheet of newsprint. The rocky beach and the solitary white clapboard building in the distance could be elements of the Maine landscape Kuniyoshi loved and knew so well, while the barren mountains beyond are more likely inspired by the West. What is meant by this mélange of autobiographical allusions?

Lloyd Goodrich, writing in 1948, surmised that Festivities Ended and Headless Horse Who Wants to Jump are about “the sense of pleasure and festivities being over, of a new era of ruin and desolation, of the objects of pleasure broken and abandoned.”[32] These two major paintings signal Kuniyoshi’s shift from an earlier style of representational painting, which depicted an actual arrangement of objects or figures posed in real space, to a new style which, while still realist, deals instead with objects and figures arranged symbolically in grand and fictional settings.

Somebody Tore My Poster (1943, cat. no. 77) utilizes certain formal devices to convey the themes of fragmentation and ambiguity that underlie Kuniyoshi’s work of this period. These are the use of typography to represent parts of words and signs, and the technique of cropping and overlapping images. The painting represents a young, fashionable woman in the interior of a building. She leans against a railing in the foreground, smoking a cigarette and looking away from the wall behind her. Her expression is partly aloof. A large torn poster hangs off the back wall; we can discern the raised arm of one male figure and the cap and raised arms of a second figure. On the plaster wall underneath the torn section of the poster is a flying circus girl, an image which recalls Kuniyoshi’s numerous lithographs and drawings of the same subject which he rendered in the 1920s and thirties.

It is of interest that the object in the background of Somebody Tore My Poster is an actual war poster that was designed by Ben Shahn in 1942 for the Office of War Information, the same organization which published Kuniyoshi’s Torture. The poster to which Kuniyoshi alludes is We French Workers Warn You…Defeat Means Slavery, Starvation and Death and depicts a crowd of French workers surrendering to the Nazi enemy. Shahn and Kuniyoshi knew each other since at least 1933, when Kuniyoshi joined the Downtown Gallery where Shahn regularly showed, but it remains curious why Kuniyoshi chose to feature Shahn’s OWI poster in Somebody Tore My Poster, one of the few paintings he made in 1943. (It may be worthwhile noting, however, that Shahn included an image of Kuniyoshi’s Torture poster in his 1942 gouache entitled We Fight for a Free World! and that, around 1944, he acquired Kuniyoshi’s Water Cure from the artist for his personal collection, a remarkable drawing which the OWI had never used.)[33]

While very different personalities, there are important similarities between Kuniyoshi and Shahn’s work of the mid-forties. Kuniyoshi’s This is My Playground (1947, cat. no. l03), an image of a young girl swinging in the window of a bombed-out building, relates for example to Shahn’s Liberation of 1945 which depicts a bombed building. The photographs and newsreels of shell- blasted villages and razed cities which pervaded the American media provided the main source for many artists, including Kuniyoshi and Shahn, to use as settings for a symbolic evocation of the physical, social and cultural devastation which were their wartime and postwar themes. Yet against such catastrophic adversities, Shahn’s Liberation evokes “signs of hope and perseverance within the utterly desolate landscapes” of Europe.[34] Children swinging in the ruins suggest the hope, however dim, of reconstruction. Kuniyoshi, remarking on his own paintings of 1944–48, echoes this same attitude. “The world is chaotic today but we must go on. We must have courage. We must have faith in humanity.”[35] Kuniyoshi’s bright palette and fresco-like surfaces which also relate to Shahn’s style, serve to convey a new, postwar ideal of optimism.

Kuniyoshi emerged in 1947 and 1948 as one of America’s most distinguished and accomplished artists. He was invited to exhibit in numerous group shows around the United States during the war years, won the coveted first prize at the Carnegie Institute’s 1944 Painting in the United States exhibition, and held one-man exhibitions at the Downtown Gallery in 1941 and 1945. In 1947, he was elected to be the first president of the Artists Equity Association, the only professional organization of its kind to advocate the economic rights of artists. While the majority of Equity’s members were representational rather than abstract or Surrealist artists, its roster included several well-established artists in the country. (Among its directors, for example, were Isamu Noguchi, Charles Burchfield, Kenneth Callahan, Robert Laurent and Andrew Wyeth.) Through Kuniyoshi’s efforts, the Artists Equity sponsored annual summer conferences in association with the Woodstock Art Association (whose members included Alexander Archipenko, George Ault, Milton Avery and Bradley Walker Tomlin). Eminent critics, the directors and curators of the Whitney, Metropolitan and Museum of Modern Art and patrons and dealers such as Hudson D. Walker and Edith Halpert participated in these conferences. Lloyd Goodrich later praised Kuniyoshi’s leadership of Equity: “The trust and regard in which he was held by his fellow artists was shown by their choice of him as the first president of Artists Equity Association…. He was the perfect president-devoted, hard-working, getting others to work hard, skillful and diplomatic….”[36] Under Kuniyoshi’s tenure (he stepped down and became honorary president in 1951), Equity expanded its national membership to 1800.

But certainly one of the greatest honors Kuniyoshi received in the postwar years was a retrospective exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. It was especially significant because it was the Whitney’s first one-person survey of a living artist and inaugurated a welcome new exhibition policy. The invitation must have meant a great deal to Kuniyoshi, who had considered himself for some three decades to be an American artist but was still, because of the U.S. ruling, denied citizenship. Kuniyoshi was no stranger to the Whitney. He had been a member of the Whitney Studio Club in the early 1920s and its founding director, Juliana Force, had sponsored his 1942 benefit retrospective at the Downtown Gallery for the United China Relief. According to Sara Mazo Kuniyoshi though, it was probably Lloyd Goodrich who advocated the nomination of Kuniyoshi for the museum’s first retrospective show.[37] Goodrich was curator at the Whitney since 1935 and became its associate director in 1948.[38] At the time of Kuniyoshi’s retrospective, he was the foremost curator of American art in the country and the sixty-page catalogue he wrote for the exhibition has served as the standard reference on Kuniyoshi in the United States and Japan ever since. “On the whole,” the New Yorker reviewed, “it was an excellent selection, for Kuniyoshi is certainly one of the foremost  painters in America.’”[39]

Kuniyoshi’s retrospective occurred at a time when a decisive split within the American art community was forming between the defenders of representational art and abstract art. The split was characterized at the time as a “struggle between the modernist and the realist tradition, expressed in other terms as an opposition between the ‘pure and the social artist.”[40] The dominant group of realist painters, many of whom were former Regionalist, social realist or American Scene painters, defended the viability of their naturalistic style and the social, political or allegorical content of their work. The growing numbers of abstract artists, who claimed their aesthetic lineage to Symbolism, Cubism, German Expressionism, Dada and Surrealism, dismissed the realists as regressive and nationalist. Even though, as art historian and critic George Heard Hamilton noted, many American realists had absorbed the influence of abstract art and were now producing imagery that was somewhere between abstraction and realism, the avant-garde critic Clement Greenberg would have none of it. He perceived an irrefutable difference in quality between those American artists who followed the Cubist tradition, as modified and advanced in the U.S. by Klee, Arp, Giacometti and Kandinsky, and those who were committed to naturalistic art, which he said was “unreedemable.”[41]

Kuniyoshi was not oblivious to the growing presence of abstract and Surrealist art in New York. Responding in part to their influence, his paintings of 1948 until his death show an attempt to grasp and assimilate certain avant-garde ideas. Another factor which effected Kuniyoshi’s technique in the late forties was his use of a new brand of paints which came on the market, called Ponsol Shiva. His student and class monitor at the League, Anne Helioff, believes that his use of this new medium accounts for the bright color of Kuniyoshi’s palette during this period.[42]

As we have seen, many of Kuniyoshi’s still life and figure scenes of 1940–47 had demonstrated an interest in fusing real and fantastic images, in composing arrangements of unexpected elements and in exploiting the emotional and psychological associations of the composition to evoke a pictorial experience. In a general way, these characteristics could be defined as Symbolist or Surrealist. Indeed, contemporary critics noted  Kuniyoshi’s affinities with Surrealism: “The big still lifes,” Robert M. Coates wrote in 1948, “have a dreamy appeal that approaches that of the gentler sort of Surrealism…. [They] have an emotional depth and complexity that the earlier pieces of this type lack.”[43]

Kuniyoshi’s last paintings, however, reveal the artist as an aesthetic strategist coping with the challenges of a changing contemporary art world. In Oriental Presents (1951, cat. no. III), we feel his conscious struggle to experiment with the more formal and daring implications of abstract and Surrealist art. The painting represents an imaginary view in space of scattered colorful paper souvenirs. Unlike the atmospheric background spaces of his earlier still lifes, this painting presents a tight and shallow space with both foreground and background forms reduced to flat planes of bright color. Reduced modeling and minimum brushwork serve to deny any three-dimensional illusion and insist rather on interlocking the shapes of objects and the spaces surrounding them in an overall two-dimensional pattern. Shape and color are thus largely freed from the task of realistic description, and the emphasis is instead on their decorative and abstract relationships. “This is all very new for me,” Kuniyoshi, wrote of his new style, “but in some ways it is a return to ideas of my early work—like two-dimensions and fantasy.”[44]

In many of Kuniyoshi’s final paintings, he exploits the flat, bright and decorative style of Oriental Presents to create expressionistic scenes of carnival figures. This series of paintings, which includes Exit (1950, cat. no. 108), Carnival (1949, cat. no. 107) and Amazing Juggler (1952, cat. no. 116) present a world that looks festive and childlike but which is in fact a tragic charade. Masked figures in colorful costume perform circus games in brilliant, romantic fair grounds. They are slightly modeled, fictional creatures set in a geometric order of planes of high-keyed color. These background forms allude to the billboards, stage sets and tents of an impermanent funhouse; we are the spectators of its disguised, androgynous inmates. Their chalk-white faces are totally or partly masked, suggesting hidden or lost identity. Their drooping clownish eyes and broad, downturned lips delineate extreme and introspective sadness. The surfaces of scraped colors, layer over transparent layer, give the impression that the forms and structures they describe are shifting and not solid. The dry and shrill pinks, violets, yellows and vermillion reds are different from Kuniyoshi’s characteristic earthy palette and his impasto surfaces. Yet this bright carnival is ghostly.

Kuniyoshi had been obsessed with the circus once before in his career. During the late 1920s and early 1930, he produced numerous lithographs and drawings of female circus performers—tight-rope cyclists, trapeze artists and wire performers. Decked out in provocative and burlesque costume, Kuniyoshi’s circus girls were symbols of a carefree and romantic fantasy. When he returns to the same subject in the late 1940s and early fifties, however, the themes are used to different ends. In striking ways, Kuniyoshi’s carnival scenes imagine a similar kind of post- atomic humanity that the avant-garde performer/choreographers Tatsumi Hijitata and Kazuo Ono envisioned in the 1960s with Butoh dance. Theirs and Kuniyoshi’s fay, deformed creatures could symbolize the pathetic consequence of uncommon violence, of apocalypse. Images of mockery and agony recur throughout the art of Kuniyoshi’s final year of life. The gigantic ants in Work at Dawn (c. 1952, cat. no. 119) and the severed Fish Head (1952) are also the blackest art he ever produced. Ben Shahn, writing a foreword to a memorial exhibition of Kuniyoshi’s work, describes his friend’s last work:

But even those last black drawings contain the unmitigated beauty of form and concept that were so essentially Yas. Even in his agony and his knowledge of his coming death there was still some elusive haunting sort of wit—the surprise in the invention of form—the daring to be so black—the direct formulating of something felt, without indirection of any kind.[45]

On May 14, 1953 Kuniyoshi died in New York City after a prolonged illness which was diagnosed as cancer. Kuniyoshi believed he would recover, and looked forward more than anything to realizing the two dreams of his life which the postwar political situation had finally made possible. The first was that, because the immigration law barring Japanese from becoming naturalized citizens was abolished just in 1952, he was now eligible to be an American. He requested his lawyer to fill out the application forms but died before they could be processed. The second and equally important negotiation which was underway at time of his death was the organization of a retrospective exhibition of his work in Japan, to be held the following year at the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo. Thanks to the perseverance and foresight of its organizers, and to Sara’s cooperation and devotion, the plans were not dropped and Kuniyoshi’s first major exhibition in his home country opened in 1954. Atsuo Imaizumi, founding director of the Museum, introduced Kuniyoshi to Japan with the following words:

The blood that flowed in Kuniyoshi was certainly of Japanese origin, but as the words he spoke were American, so is his art. And by this I do not mean a sort of eclecticism merging the two national traits. His art is too genuine for that, too harmonious, too deeply organic. It could not have a form other than the one it had assumed quite spontaneously, a free-born gift of its creator.[46]

In Japan and the United States, Kuniyoshi’s art of 1940 until his death is the least well-known of his major work. The rise and dominance of Abstract Expressionism and formalist criticism in the 1950s overshadowed Kuniyoshi’s achievements along with those of an entire school of American realists. The postwar avant­garde was allied to European modernism and its intellectual tradition of abstract, Surrealist and conceptual art; it opposed representational painting and its non-Cubist pictorial conventions. While Kuniyoshi may have felt the influence of the emerging avant-garde, he remained a realist and an independent. Thus according to the “orthodox” art histories of American art of the 1940s, which have been concerned with defining the roots of Abstract Expressionism, Kuniyoshi and other representational artists were neither fashionable nor prevalent in the New York art world then. Yet we know this was not the case.

Kuniyoshi’s historical importance in modern American art history focuses rather on the period of the 1920s and thirties. Representational painting then dominated the American art scene and Kunyoshi’s style was recognized and influential. His affiliation with such legendary institutions as the Whitney Studio Club, Daniel Gallery and the Art Students League also helped establish him as one of the most eminent American artists working between the wars. Yet in promoting this “classical” period of Kuniyoshi’s work and its place in prewar American art history, scholars have overlooked the artist’s later work.

It is time to critique these conventional views and reconsider the importance of Kuniyoshi’s wartime and postwar work in the history of modern American and Japanese art, and in the context of his growth as an artist. The later work, comprised as we have seen of several series in various media—oils, caseins, drawings and gouaches—offers us an opportunity to analyze and appreciate several aspects of Kuniyoshi’s art and character which the earlier work would not reveal. This mature period, coinciding with the crises of World War II, was at once the most difficult and rewarding in his life: While his enemy alien status in American and the atrocities of war caused him great personal sadness, his fame and recognition as a painter and teacher peaked. Asking more and more of himself and his art, he began to face the critical question of his life and work, namely, his identity.

Kuniyoshi belonged to neither and both Japan and America. He was an expatriate of one, and an “alien” in the other. Despite his  achievements as an artist in America over a period of forty-seven years, he never received the legal confirmation—citizenship—that he was an American artist. The option of identifying himself with the Japanese art world was even more closed to him: He was hardly known there until his death. Japan’s yoga or Western-style oil painting school was dominated by graduates and teachers of the prestigious Tokyo School of Fine Arts, many of whom had also studied for periods with the same French salon masters in Paris. The few Japanese artists who studied or settled in America (rather than France) in the early decades of this century were not well­known in Japan until recently and their reputations are for the most part posthumous.[47] Kuniyoshi befriended such Japanese­American artists as Toshi Shimizu, Hideo Noda and Bumpei Usui, but he alone became an integral and esteemed member of the American art community at that time. Yet despite his remarkable and unprecedented assimilation as an Asian in the New York art world (recall that Isamu Noguchi was half-American and a U.S. citizen), Kuniyoshi confessed in 1932 that: “I know very clearly that I am a Japanese. However deeply a Japanese enters a Western  country, ultimately he cannot become a Westerner.”[48] His sense that he could never be fully accepted in a Western society was probably aggravated by a language and education barrier: He was never fluent in either the Japanese or English written languages.[49] Kuniyoshi’s uncertain, ambiguous status gave him a perspective of isolation; its vision marks his work, especially of the later period.

Kuniyoshi’s two cultural heritages—East and West—may have caused him personal conflicts, but Americans found the duality romantic. Critics who wrote about Kuniyoshi’s art commonly felt the need to link elements of his painting style to vague and unfounded notions of traditional Japanese aesthetics.[50] Even Lloyd Goodrich could not resist: “The artist’s concern with all forms of life, down to the most minute—snakes and birds, flowers and weeds—recalls traditional Japanese art.”[51] In fact, Kuniyoshi probably saw more Japanese art after he came to America than he did growing up in Okayama, and his art training and stylistic lineage were thoroughly based in the modern European tradition. Perhaps Tsuguji Fujita in Paris and later Kenzo Okada in New York consciously integrated elements of Japonisme, a European ideal of Japanese aesthetics based largely on the ukiyo-e woodblock prints and Edo-period decorative arts which had dazzled the West since the late nineteenth century. But Kuniyoshi’s art is different. He neither denied nor exaggerated his Japanese sensibilities in his natural and genuine embrace of modernism. Contrary to what has been written, he did not paint the attributes of an exotic cultural heritage. He painted his personal reality, which he saw and experienced as a paradox. In his famous essay, “Universality in Art,” Kuniyoshi wrote:

Here is a fist against the light casting a shadow upon the table. The fist is West and the table is East. Fist is actuality, it has form and exists in space, while the shadow is shape, sometimes it has depth and it is diffused with mystery.[52]

The outbreak of World War II brought the conflicts of Kuniyoshi’s nationality to a point of catharsis. As we have discussed, the recurring themes of his work during this period are symbolic of his attempt to resolve the fear, alienation and sadness which he experienced as an enemy alien in his adopted country, and as a humanist in a time of terror and disaster. It was during these darkest years that his art achieved its greatest brilliance. Kuniyoshi’s wartime and postwar art is the culmination of his search to find identity in isolation, paradox and duality, and to achieve the painterly means to ex press the depths and complexity of his feelings on canvas.

Since his death in 1953, the Japanese have come to regard Kuniyoshi as one of their most significant artists of the century. He is now recognized in Japan as an original and influential modernist of international stature. Indeed, Kuniyoshi was the first Japanese artist in America to achieve such eminence in the art world of his day. Because the issues of an artist’s race and nationality in determining the critical history of modern art are being questioned and re-evaluated, we can once again appreciate Yasuo Kuniyoshi’s unique and great contribution to twentieth-century culture, in both of his countries.

Originally published in Yasuo Kuniyoshi Centennial Retrospective Exhibition. Reproduced by permission of the publisher.

“The War Years and Their Aftermath: 1940–1953.” In Yasuo Kuniyoshi Centennial Retrospective Exhibition, pp. 38–44. Exh. cat. Kyoto: The National Museum of Modern Art, in association with Nippon Television Corporation, Tokyo, 1989. [In English and Japanese]


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Several ideas presented in this essay developed from discussions and interviews I had with Dr. Takeo Uchiyama over the last year. I am extremely grateful for Dr. Uchiyama’s critical contribution and supportive guidance. I also benefitted from working with Mr. Keisuke Watanabe and Mr. Shinji Kohmoto, and wish to acknowledge the influence of their perspectives and insights. I am most grateful to Sara Mazo Kuniyoshi for sharing her knowledge and expertise with me.

[1] Isidor Glasgal, Kuniyoshi’s lawyer, letter to Mathias Correa, U.S. District Attorney, 5 January 1942. Kuniyoshi Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, New York. Unfilmed collection 1989.
[2] Anne Helioff (Mrs. Ben Hirschberg), interview by Alexandra Munroe.
[3] Franklin Riehlman, Tom Wolf and Bruce Weber, Yasuo Kuniyoshi: Artist as Photographer (Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, and West Palm Beach, Florida: Bard College and Norton Gallery and School of Art, 1983), p.7.
[4] Yasuo Kuniyoshi, letter to George Biddle, 11 December 1941. Kuniyoshi Papers, Archives of American Art.
[5] See Cecile Whiting, Antifascism in American Art (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1989), for an explanation of the Popular Front and its relationship to the American antifacist movement. On page 2, she writes: Any examination of the multifaceted manifestation of antifascist opinion in American art must be anchored in the recognition that the concept of antifascism itself underwent numerous changes between 1933 and 1945. The earliest domestic reaction to fascism surfaced among American Communists who conceived of it as a political attack directed by Germany specifically against the Soviet Union. The fight against fascism in this earliest stage was but one part or a more comprehensive program to defend the Soviet Union, popularize its creed, and speed the demise of capitalism. Antifascism did not emerge as the central rallying cry or the American Communist party until 1935, when the Soviet leadership instituted its new policy of a “Popular Front” or communist and noncommunist nations cooperating to contain fascism. With the Popular Front antifascism no longer specified a battle fought exclusively between the Soviet Union and Germany; it indicated a broadly based war between democracy—both bourgeois and socialist—and fascism. The vision of democracy strangled by the firm grip of fascism awakened many American artists and intellectuals to the cause of the Popular Front. The Hitler-Stalin pact in 1939, however, ruptured the link between antifascism and support of the Soviet Union; indeed by the Second World War antifascism for some artists implied anticommunism as well.
[6] Quoted in Whiting , Antifascism in American Art, p. 39.
[7] World Telegram, 23 February 1940.
[8] Jack Markow, Corresponding Secretary, An American Group, Inc., letter to Franklin D. Roosevelt, 19 December 1941 Kuniyoshi Papers, Archives of American Art.

[9] Those Japanese who immigrated to the West coast tended to form communities, whereas those who settled in the East came on an individual basis and were less identified as a minority racial group.
[10] Helioff, interview by Munroe and Watanabe, 2 June 1989.
[11] Yasuo Kuniyoshi, “Rally for Victory in the Far East: City Center,” 6 December 1944, typescript, p.l. Kuniyoshi Papers, Archives of American Art.
[12] Yasuo Kuniyoshi, “East to West,” Magazine of Art (February, 1940), p. 8. “I enjoyed coming back to Japan [in 1931] but found it difficult to adjust myself after being away for so long…I sailed back in February 1932 firmly convinced that my adopted home was my home.”
[13] Lloyd Goodrich, Yasuo Kuniyoshi (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art and The MacMillan Company, 1948), p. 42.
[14] Kuniyoshi, “Rally for Victory in the Far East: City Center,” typescript, p. 5.
[15] Yasuo Kuniyoshi, “Statement,” 40 American Painters 1940–50. (The University of Minnesota, The University Gallery, 1951), unpaginated.
[16] For reproductions and descriptions of  Kuniyoshi’s war drawings, see Kuniyoshi Artist’s Files, Whitney Museum of American Art Archives.
[17] Archibald MacLeish, President, Office of War Information, letter to Yasuo Kuniyoshi, 24 June 1942. Kuniyoshi Papers, Archives of American Art. In response to Pearl Harbor, the American Artists’ Congress and United American Artists appealed to President Roosevelt to use their talents “in this war emergency” and asserted that “art can be a powerful weapon in national defense.” (Whiting, Antifascism in American Art, p. l35.) In early 1942, these two groups organized an association of twenty-three art societies representing some 10,000 artists nationally and 3000 to 4000 in New York under the name Artists for Victory. The high-point of their activities was a large show at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
[18] MacLeish, letter to Yasuo Kuniyoshi, 24 June 1942.
[19] Yasuo Kuniyoshi, letter to Archibald Macleis, 1 July 1942. Kuniyoshi Papers, Archives of American Art.
[20] Thomas D. Mabry, letter to Yasuo Kuniyoshi, 10 September 1942. Kuniyoshi Papers, Archives of American Art.
[21] Tom Wolf, “The War Years” in Yasuo Kuniyoshi (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art at Philip Morris, 1986), unpaginated.
[22] Gene Thornton, “Kuniyoshi’s America and the War Against Japan,” in Yasuo Kuniyoshi 1889–1953: Drawings of the Forties (New York: Zabriskie Gallery, 1980), unpaginated.
[23] Yasuo Kuniyoshi, “Japan Against Japan,” 12 March 1942, typescript pp. 2–3. Kuniyoshi Papers, Archives of American Art.
[24] Quoted in Lloyd Goodrich, A Special Loan Retrospective Exhibition of Works by Yasuo Kuniyoshi (Gainesville, Florida: University of Florida Art Gallery, 1969), unpaginated.
[25]Yasuo Kuniyoshi, “Preliminary Notes for an Autobiography,” 8 August 1944. Kuniyoshi Papers, Archives of American Art.
[26] Aline B. Louchheim, “Kuniyoshi: Look, My Past,” Art News (April, 1947), p. 55.
[27] Douglas Naylor, “Maybe It’s Symbol—Art Jury Given 1st to Japanese’s Painting: Winner Depicts ‘Pile of Junk.’” The Pittsburgh Press (13 October 1946).
[28] Kuniyoshi, “Autobiographical Remarks,” 29 December 1944, typescript.
[29] Yasuo Kuniyoshi, “Credo,” 14 October 1950, typescript, p. 9. Kuniyoshi Papers, Archives of American Art.
[30] Kuniyoshi, “Preliminary Notes for an Autobiography,” August 1944, typescript, pp. 17A and 7B.
[31] Lloyd Goodrich, “Conversation with Kuniyoshi,” 19 February 1948, typescript, unpaginated. Kuniyoshi Artist’s Files, Whitney Museum Archives.
[32] Lloyd Goodrich, Yasuo Kuniyoshi (Whitney Museum, 1948), p. 44.
[33] For documentation supporting this transaction, see “Water Cure 1943” (drawings file), Kuniyoshi Artist’s Files, Whitney Museum Archives.
[34] Whiting, Antifascism in American Art, p. 162.
[35] Lloyd Goodrich, “Conversation with Kuniyoshi,” 19 February 1948. Kuniyoshi Artist’s File, Whitney Museum Archives.
[36] Lloyd Goodrich, “A Memory of Yasuo Kuniyoshi,” Art Students League News (Summer, 1953), unpaginated.
[37] Sara Mazo Kuniyoshi, interview by author, 2 October 1989, Woodstock, New York.
[38] Goodrich held that post until 1958 when he was appointed director. He retired in 1968 after overseeing the expansion of the Whitney to its present site at 975 Madison Avenue, in a modernist building designed by Marcel Breuer.
[39] Robert M. Coates, “The Art Galleries: A Kuniyoshi Retrospective,’ The New Yorker, 3 April 1948.
[40] Milton Brown, “The Forces behind U.S. Painting,” Art News (August, 1947), p. 35.
[41] George Heard Hamilton, in “A Symposium: The State of American Art,” Magazine of Art (March, 1949), p. 93.
[42] Helioff, interview by Munroe and Watanabe, 2 June 1989. Sara Mazo Kuniyoshi has also confirmed Kuniyoshi’s use of the Ponsol Shiva colors. In a note to Munroe and Watanabe she wrote in September, 1989, she recalls: “It may have been in the forties, perhaps somewhat earlier(?) that lead used in oil paint was prohibited because of possibly producing injurious effects. Therefore many of the colors and quality of the oils were not quite the same, and for example, one color, Naples yellow was completely banned. A few artists, Kuniyoshi included (I heard them talking about it) were especially dissatisfied with the quality of white oil paint. Kuniyoshi then sought and found a formula for making his own white. Toward the end of the forties Kuniyoshi was coping to find new means of expression in his work. When the Pensol Shiva colors came on the market he tried them and became involved with this new medium which he used in his last major paintings accounting for the heightened color in his palette.
[43] Coates, “A Kuniyoshi Retrospective.”
[44] “Kuniyoshi: Look, My Past,” Art News (April, 1948), p.46.
[45] Ben Shahn, “Foreword,” in Retrospective Exhibition: Yasuo Kuniyoshi (Boston University School of Fine and Applied Arts, 1961), unpaginated.
[46] Atsuo Imizumi, “The Art of Kuniyoshi,” in Kuniyoshi Catalogue of Kuniyoshi’s Posthumous Exhibition under the auspices of The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo and The Mainichi Newspapers (The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, 1954), p. 1.
[47] See Japanese Artists who Studied in the USA and the American Scene. [Amerika ni Mananda Nihon no Gakatachi: Kuniyoshi, Shimizu, Ishigaki, Noda to American Scene Kaiga.] (Tokyo and Kyoto: The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, and The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, 1982)
[48] Atelier, vol. 9, no. 1, 1932.
[49] Kuniyoshi said: “It is difficult for me to speak about my feelings so 1 paint in order to express my thoughts. I do not have what one would call the ability to feel better through writing.” Mainichi Shimbun, February 16, 1950. I am grateful to Mr. Watanabe for bringing these quotes to my attention, and for his ideas relating to this point.
[50] I am grateful to Bert Winther for his insight here.
[51] Goodrich, Yasuo Kuniyoshi (Whitney Museum, 1948), p.13.
[52] Yasuo Kuniyoshi, “Universality in Art,” The League Quarterly (Spring 1949), p. 7.

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