In a dark era of national history, the U.S. government placed West Coast residents of Japanese descent into internment camps during World War II, simply because of their heritage. This chapter of World War II history may be closed, but one of the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s newest exhibits, “The Artistic Journey of Yasuo Kuniyoshi,” features artwork from a man who lived through that experience.
Kuniyoshi was an artist born in Japan who experienced similar profiling in his home state of New York and subsequently faced controversy when American museums featured his work, as many people deemed him non-American. The exhibit chronicles the progression of Kuniyoshi’s art, from the 1920s to his death in 1953. His pieces contain American subject matters with strong, dark influences from his own personal hardships as a Japanese man in the United States during World War II.
The exhibit showcases the broadness and complexity of the art that Kuniyoshi produced, which ranges from black and white pen or pencil sketches to elaborate large paintings. The subject matter ranges from Maine landscapes to Parisian prostitutes to World War II themes, with much in between. His style is not traditionally Japanese but is instead bold and modern, which provides a unique spin on the contemporary art movement.
The pieces themselves are not the most aesthetically pleasing. However, examination of the content matter in almost all of his drawings and paintings can be thought-provoking and reflects the complicated life of Kuniyoshi. It is divided into early years of bright and bold cartoon-like paintings, the World War II phase, which feature paintings and sketches of dimmer colors, and the postwar phase, which includes downright haunting paintings and extremely dark, black-and-white paintings and drawings.
Pictures from his early life include detailed and colorful paintings of fairly traditional American subject matter, such as a self-portrait of Kuniyoshi golfing in Maine, where he had a summer house (“Self Portrait of a Golf Player”), and a young boy leading a large cow (“Little Joe with Cow”). However, this phase also hints at darkness, most notably with a pen and black ink sketch of a lonely and forlorn lady, entitled “The Widow.”
This section also shows a series of pictures influenced by Kuniyoshi’s visit to Paris, such as “Circus Girl Resting” and “Strong Woman with Child.” These paintings show voluptuously shaped women holding seductive poses and were actually criticized by President Harry Truman for misrepresenting female proportions.
The WWII images generally stand out less within the exhibit due to their more monotone colors and more intricate subjects, which reflect many of Kuniyoshi’s life hardships at that point.
However, one interesting piece is a painting called “Juanita.” Using opaque blocks of color, the painting shows a cluttered wooden table with a pitcher prominently in the middle. Interestingly, the pitcher is actually cracked around the middle. In real life, Kuniyoshi bought the pitcher on a honeymoon in Mexico with his second wife and painted the picture of its real-life crack during their separation, thus using subject matter to represent his own life.
The most powerful picture of this era is “Torture,” which is a black and white pencil drawing of the back of a shackled man struggling to remove his handcuffs. However, it also has red streaks of pencil across the man’s back, representing lashings. Needless to say, these single lines of red stand out from the black and white to make this already powerful image even more noticeable.
Next, the postwar imagery era of the exhibit is even more ominous but is also the most memorable. The exhibit has a wall of drawings and paintings that are almost pure black, with titles such as “Fish Head,” representing a dead fish’s head on a plate, and “Old Tree,” which is just that.
Notably, a few of the images from this period terrifyingly depict clowns, which struck me as foreboding for the present day since many children now grow up with a fear of clowns. “Fakirs” is a painting comprised of extremely bright, almost neon colors that depicts a ferocious looking clown with an extensive, pointy, red carrot nose. A miniature clown with gouged out eyes hangs from his arm while another blue-faced clown peeps out from behind him.
“Mr. Ace” shows a blue and creepy looking circus performer wearing very strange clothes and holding a hand to his head, both as a farewell gesture but also in a manner that looks like the popular modern gesture of mimicking a gun. Interestingly, Kuniyoshi painted these pictures, with their lethal connotations, just a year before he died of stomach cancer, giving them an eerie sense of foreboding.
Finally, one of the largest and most prominent pictures in the exhibit, “Festivals Ended,” is also from this final era. It is of a lone carousel horse that is upside down with its pole sticking up into nothingness. The horse hangs by a string in front of a billboard saying “Hygiene,” and a girl and a boy lie on the ground in the background aimlessly staring towards the sky. Kuniyoshi described the painting in 1948 by saying, “The world is chaotic today, but we must go on.”
The Kuniyoshi exhibit is comprised of very American subject matter, such as Maine landscapes, World War II and clowns, but it also contains this dark perspective that emphasizes the hardships of being a Japanese man in a country that fought Japan, even though Kunoyishi firmly stood completely loyal to the American way of life and army.
It must again be noted that the pieces are not the prettiest at which to look; casual museumgoers may not enjoy them as much as something more classical. However, the fascinating subject matter and complexities of the paintings are able to provide a new look into Kunoyishi’s life and an era of U.S. history that we commonly glorify as a victorious one. The artwork serves as a reminder of the incredible hardships undergone by Japanese-Americans on the home front and will certainly cause viewers to rethink their perspectives.
Have a reaction to this article? Write a letter to the editor.