From the Roaring ’20s art schools to the doldrums of the Great Depression to the horrors of World War II to the unabashed colors of the ’50s, Yasuo Kuniyoshi charted American culture in rapidly changing art with myriad influences.

A new exhibition on the 20th century Japanese-American modernist’s work opened April 3 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Curated by Tom Wolf, an art history professor at Bard College and museum deputy chief curator Joann Moser, the exhibit chronicles Kuniyoshi’s changing work from 1918 to 1953, the first such U.S. retrospective in more than 65 years, according to a museum press release.

This self portrait from the 20's is a prime example of the impressionistic style  Kuniyoshi  worked in for his  earliest years. It also foreshadows the style he would take on during the Depression and the War. (Photo courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum)
This self portrait from the 20’s is a prime example of the impressionistic style Kuniyoshi worked in for his earliest years. It also foreshadows the style he would take on during the Depression and the War. (Photo courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum)

Born in Japan, Kuniyoshi emigrated in his teenage years and would “become one of America’s most esteemed artists in America between the two world wars.” In his lifetime, Kuniyoshi was exhibited alongside Georgia O’Keefe, Edward Hopper and Frank Stella, among others, said the press release.

His ethnicity caused numerous difficulties during his life, most pressingly during World War II, when the U.S. government persecuted Japanese-Americans while the U.S. fought Japan.

Kuniyoshi escaped persecution by creating jarring propaganda posters for the U.S. government, but the detachment brought about by his race and nationality deeply affected his art.

According to an exhibition placard, “the artist enjoyed playing golf, [but,] owing to his nationality, he could not join a country club.” Instead, he played as a friend’s guest.

This divide is apparent in “Self Portrait as a Golf Player” where Kuniyoshi stands in “the traditional stance of a samurai,” according to the placard. His sword is replaced with a golf club and his kimono a sweater vest.

Kuniyoshi’s style is ostensibly American and his subjects are almost universally Western, from pastoral Maine boats and homes to Judeo-Christian theology.

Kuniyoshi spent time in Ogunquit, Maine, and the region comes through on canvas.

In “The Swimmer,” a woman swims, larger than life, around a quintessential island lighthouse.

For religious work, “Adam and Eve” comes to the forefront, as does “The Twist Loaf,” which appears to show a hunk of Jewish challah bread.

While the subjects may be particularly American, they are inspired by his childhood in Japan.

Angular caricatured cows like the one in “Little Joe With Cow” are a common trope in Kuniyoshi’s work because he was born in the Japanese lunar calendar’s year of the cow or ox, according to an exhibition placard.

In his early inkwork, the Japanese influence is much more apparent through the art’s subtlety and deliberateness of stroke. “Lady Slipper” is a quiet masterwork: the only color in the black inkwork is a deeply-veined, warmly gilded orchid flower reminiscent in shape of the human heart.

“Adam and Eve” is an example of Kuniyoshi’s work on Western theological themes. (Photo courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum)
“Adam and Eve” is an example of Kuniyoshi’s work on Western theological themes. (Photo courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum)

In later works, though, the black ink comes to all but dominate the paper.

Instead of meditative subtlety, works are aggravated, dark and of strongly macabre subjects: a dead fish’s head, a dying tree with a crow and an oversized insect.

This is symbolic of a shift that occurs as Kuniyoshi’s work enters the Great Depression and heavily at the start of World War II, a deeply traumatic time for the artist.

The women he depicted – until this point well fed and rather smiley – take an ominous turn with shaded eyes, melancholy faces and cigarettes. Where some had previously exposed their breasts in a nonchalant manner, they came to do so dejectedly with resignation.

They are gaunt in post-war works, walking among ruins or sobbing on a daughter’s shoulder. The beaches are no longer pastoral Maine sand strips, but litter-peppered patches of death.

“Torture,” a drawing done in preparation for a wartime propaganda poster, demonstrates the morbid turn in Kuniyoshi’s work brought by an  internal crisis due to World War II and the persecution of Japanese Americans. (Photo courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum)
“Torture” demonstrates the morbid turn in Kuniyoshi’s work brought by an internal crisis due to World War II. (Photo courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum)

Between Two Worlds” brings the whole landscape into the sadness.

It is now messy, litter strewn everywhere. Men and women are hanged, murdered, bayoneted, whipped and tortured with “The Water Cure” – an early form of waterboarding. The art, like the world and the artist’s soul, was at war.

“Throughout the War and immediate aftermath, he was wary of showing any sympathy for the Japanese people or the Japanese internees in the U.S. for fear his patriotism might be questioned,” according to an exhibition placard.

Somebody Tore My Poster” brings everything he had done thus far to a head. His smoking, submissive woman stands in front of a ripped war poster depicting the French struggle in World War II and revisiting a circus image, an early theme of Kuniyoshi’s art.

The circus theme, in earlier years was reserved in color and reminiscent of Fernando Botero and Diego Rivera, is colorful and abstract in the fifties, a confusing departure evident of a conflicted man with a crisis of life direction. “This Is My Playground” shows Kuniyoshi’s artistic mind utterly scattered.

“The Artistic Journey of Yasuo Kuniyoshi” is on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum until August 30.

headshotEvan Berkowitz is a freshman journalism major and can be reached at evanjberkowitz@gmail.com.

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