By Charles Kessler
|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. |
Tom Wolf, one of my oldest and best friends (he introduced my wife and me 47+ years ago), curated a major exhibition of the Japanese-American painter Yasuo Kuniyoshi (1889-1953) at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art
(through August 30th) and wrote a definitive catalog
essay about the work. It is a major exhibition, indeed — 66 paintings and drawings covering his entire career; and it's the first comprehensive exhibition of his work in the United States in more than sixty years. This show is a revelation – Kuniyoshi should be more well-known.
|Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Fish Kite, 1950, oil on canvas, 30 x 49 2/5 inches (Fukutake Collection, Okayama, Japan).|
I had prepared a tirade about New York provincialism because the exhibition, which opened more than three months ago, had been ignored except for one review
in the Washington Post
. But recently excellent reviews by Allison Meier in Hyperallergic
and the consistently perceptive Roberta Smith in the New York Times
have been published.
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.
|Left: Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Killer, or Chinese woman praying (Study for War Poster), 1942, pencil on paper, 16 ⅘ x 13 7⁄10 inches (Fukutake Collection, Okayama, Japan Art © Estate of Yasuo Kuniyoshi-Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY); Right: Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Hanged (Study for War Poster), 1943, pencil on paper, 16 ⅗ x 13 7⁄10 inches (Fukutake Collection, Okayama, Japan, Art © Estate of Yasuo Kuniyoshi/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY).|
Kuniyoshi's art was original, but not radically so; nor was his work particularly influential. Radical innovation and international influence didn't occur in the United States until the advent of Abstract Expressionism in the late 1940s. But the art of other American artist of that era (Marsden Hartley, Edward Hopper, Joseph Stella, Elie Nadelman, Thomas Hart Benton, Stuart Davis, and Ben Shahn, to name a few) wasn't any more original or influential, yet they remain well-known.
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).|
Nevertheless, I’m concerned that Kuniyoshi will not be given his due. I'm worried that the Smithsonian, however prestigious, is the only venue for this show. This is a show that should have travelled – it would have been perfect for LACMA
, or the Whitney
. (The Whitney sadly seems to have given up showing earlier American art – I wonder what their art history-oriented curator Barbara Haskell
is doing with her time now?)
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.
|Arnold Newman, Photo Portrait of the Japanese painter Yasuo Kuniyoshi, September 6, 1941 in New York City (watermark - Getty Images). Kuniyoshi is surrounded by the folk art he collected in Ogunquit, Maine, a place where many of his fellow American Modernists spent their summers and hunted for folk art. |
His early work has the flat frontality, simple shapes, tilted up space and clunky proportions that American Modernists so loved about folk art. (Kuniyoshi's work is in the current exhibition 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).|
Late work – post war:
|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).|
And he also made paintings that employed bright cheerful colors; but, like his earlier, ostensibly charming folk-like paintings, these works are superficially appealing but ultimately creepy, even horrifying.
|Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Fakirs, 1951, oil on canvas, 50 ¼ in x 32 ¼ inches (Smithsonian American Art Museum, gift of the Sara Roby Foundation, 1986.6.93 Art © Estate of Yasuo Kuniyoshi-Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY).|
My favorite Kuniyoshi paintings, and I think his most original, are his late sumi ink paintings where he applied the ink very thick and scratched into it to create highlights. Compared with his earlier ink paintings from the 1920s, and compared with traditional Japanese art, this work is less decorative and a lot rougher, and has tremendous physical presence even though it's small and on paper. And the subject matter is horrifying.
Unfortunately, the power of these paintings can't be captured in reproduction – too bad the show didn't travel.
|Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Work at Dawn, 1952, pen and ink and brush and ink on paper, 18 ½ x 28 ¼ inches (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, gift of Sara Mazo Kuniyoshi in honor of Lloyd Goodrich Art © Estate of Yasuo Kuniyoshi-Licensed by VAGA, New York). This is difficult to see in reproduction, but it's an ant carrying a dead praying mantis. |
|Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Fish Head, 1952, ink and wash on paper, 22 x 28 inches (Art © Estate of Yasuo Kuniyoshi/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY, Image copyright © The Metropolitan Museum of Art).|
|Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Old Tree, c. 1953, ink on paper, 28 ½ x 22 ⅝ inches (Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, Special Purchase Fund, 1953, Art © Estate of Yasuo Kuniyoshi/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY).|