|Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Self-Portrait as a Photographer, 1924, oil on canvas, 20 ½ x 30 ¼ inches (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). In the 1920s Kuniyoshi supported himself photographing art.|
|Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Fish Kite, 1950, oil on canvas, 30 x 49 2/5 inches (Fukutake Collection, Okayama, Japan).|
Few people know of Yasuo Kuniyoshi even though he was among the most popular American artists in the 1920s, 30s and 40s. In 1929 the Museum of Modern Art included him in 19 American Artists (the second exhibition they ever did); in 1948 the Whitney Museum of American Art gave him a retrospective (their first for a living artist); and, in 1952, Kuniyoshi represented the United States at the Venice Biennale (along with Alexander Calder, Stuart Davis, and Edward Hopper). In addition he was popular among his artist peers and was elected president of several artist organizations, including in 1946 when 400 artists, meeting at the Museum of Modern Art, elected him the first president of the newly-formed Artists Equity.
It’s ironic that at the peak of his fame as an artist, Kuniyoshi was discriminated against by the country he emigrated to when he was only sixteen years old. Now, when Japanese-Americans experience relatively little discrimination, and the United States and Japan are great allies, Kuniyoshi is widely popular in Japan, but is hardly known here.
He sought United States citizenship his entire life but he was continually rejected because of the 1924 Asian Exclusion Act's restrictions on Japanese immigration, and, shamefully, his wife had to give up her United States citizenship when they married. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he was classified an “enemy alien” and his bank account was frozen, and he had to observe a curfew. This even though he left Japan because he hated their militarism, and, during the war, he worked with the Office of War Information creating posters about Japanese atrocities.
I think the time might be ripe for a revival. For many years now, art history has been going through a sweeping process of re-evaluating the canon of twentieth-century American art. There's been greater receptiveness to what Roberta Smith referred to as the "vitally mongrel nature of American modernism," and few artists of this era fit this new canon better than Kuniyoshi who drew from the Old Masters, Asian art, early European Modernism and American folk art.
|Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Child Frightened by Water, 1924, oil on canvas, 30 ⅛ x 24 1⁄16 inches (Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC).|
I can't help feeling there would be more interest in Kuniyoshi if this show travelled to a major New York museum as it should have. The New York art world can be very provincial and insular at times, or perhaps I'm being provincial thinking a New York venue would make a difference. Here's a selection of work from the exhibition; judge for yourselves how deserving of a revival it is.
Like many American Modernist painters of this era, Kuniyoshi drew inspiration from American folk art.
Folk Art and American Modernism at the American Folk Art Museum in New York – through September 27th.) On first sight, the art of this period has the light, comical charm of folk art, but there's usually a disconcerting undercurrent to it.
|Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Strong Woman with Child, 1925, oil on canvas, 57 ¼ x 44 ⅞ inches (Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Sara Roby Foundation, 1986.6.50 Art © Estate of Yasuo Kuniyoshi-Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY).|
|Yasuo Kuniyoshi, The Swimmer, 1924, oil on canvas, 20 ½ x 30 ½ inches (Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio; Gift of Ferdinand Howald, Art © Estate of Yasuo Kuniyoshi/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY).|
As I described above, these years were especially difficult for Kuniyoshi. Even the surface charm of his early paintings is gone, replaced by tragic subjects such as the desolate landscape with starving dogs (below).
|Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Landscape with Two Dogs, 1945, oil on canvas, 10 ⅝ x 18 ½ inches (Fukutake Collection, Okayama, Japan, Art © Estate of Yasuo Kuniyoshi/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY).|
|Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Mother and Daughter, 1945, oil on canvas, 40 ¼ x 30 ¼ inches (Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Patrons Art Fund, Art © Estate of Yasuo Kuniyoshi/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY).|
Kuniyoshi must have been tormented after the war – pleased the war ended and democracy was saved, but horrified by the death and destruction, especially the horrors of the atomic bombs exploded over Japan. In addition, there was the rise of McCarthyism when conservative congressmen ridiculed his art and accused him of Communist sympathies. On top of it all, he was losing his popularity and his avant garde legitimacy to the Abstract Expressionists, and was sick from the cancer that eventually killed him. Perhaps because of all this, Kuniyoshi produced what I believe is his best, most expressive and intense art. And Kuniyoshi's artistic range during these years is astounding.
He made several dark, violent and despairing paintings like Festivities Ended, 1947 below (which I assume refers to the war, and to Picasso's Guernica – which he undoubtably saw at the Museum of Modern Art).
|Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Festivities Ended, 1947, oil on canvas, 39 3⁄10 x 69 ⅕ inches (Okayama Prefectural Museum of Art, Japan Art © Estate of Yasuo Kuniyoshi-Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY).|
Unfortunately, the power of these paintings can't be captured in reproduction – too bad the show didn't travel.