The Anxious Art Of Japanese Painter (And 'Enemy Alien') Yasuo Kuniyoshi

Aug 13, 2015
Originally published on August 18, 2015 6:13 pm

In 1906, 16-year-old Yasuo Kuniyoshi came to the U.S. alone from Japan. He made his name as a painter and at 40 he was showing his work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. But there was one thing Kuniyoshi longed for that he was always denied: American citizenship. In fact, he was classified as an "enemy alien" during World War II.

Kuniyoshi died in 1953 and after that pretty much disappeared from public memory. But Tom Wolf — guest curator of a Kuniyoshi exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum — says don't overdo the hardships. "He was a fun-loving guy," Wolf says. "He was a party animal, he had tons of friends, other artists loved him and he was so thrilled that he was able to became so successful. So it wasn't all suffering and tragedy."

And Kuniyoshi was successful in his lifetime — right up there with Georgia O'Keeffe and Edward Hopper. "He exhibited with these people, he won prizes," says American Art Museum co-curator Joann Moser. But, she adds, after Pearl Harbor, things changed: "When he walked down the street, he looked like the enemy."

And the anxiety of being Japanese-American during World War II shows in his work. The colors are somber; the faces he paints — highly stylized, flat and folk-artish — are often fearful; and babies and children are never cuddly. His Boy Stealing Fruit from 1923 stares warily, a banana in one hand while the other reaches for a peach.

"There's a very famous Japanese folktale about a little boy and a peach," Moser says. "And so I think that is a reference to his Japanese childhood."

The chubby child could be cute, but he's not. Neither is the baby on his mother's shoulders in another 1920s canvas — Child Frightened by Water. Even Kuniyoshi's bright fuchsia paintings from the 1950s have grim details — a reference to death on the Fourth of July or a scary face behind a colorful mask.

It's easy to see biography in Kuniyoshi's work. The fun-loving party animal had lots to deal with, and anti-Asian prejudice went back a long way. In 1919, Moser explains, Kuniyoshi married a white American woman who then lost her citizenship for marrying an Asian man.

During the war, Kuniyoshi wasn't sent from New York to an internment camp like the West Coast Japanese were, but there were restrictions. "His camera was taken away from him," Moser says. "His binoculars were taken away. His bank account was frozen."

But Kuniyoshi was devoted to America and was deeply patriotic. "So when the Department of Defense asked him to do some drawings for propaganda posters," Moser says, "he was eager to do that."

He sketched a mother and child hanging from a tree as a Japanese soldier leaves the scene. In Clean Up This Mess, a woman's hand discards a bag filled with Japanese symbols, like a flag and a samurai sword. The posters never got made, but the anti-Japanese sentiment was clear. It must have been difficult for Kuniyoshi to repudiate his roots.

"I think he was very torn and it was a terrible period in his life," Wolf says.

"The Artistic Journey of Yasuo Kuniyoshi" (at the American Art Museum through the end of August) is Kuniyoshi's first retrospective in more than 65 years. Abstract expressionism and newer movements nudged him off the art scene after he died in 1953. Curator Joann Moser says this show is a reminder of Kuniyoshi's American experience.

"He was really one of the most highly respected and esteemed American artists," she says. "So within artist circles, he functioned very well; he had many friends. But outside the artist circles, he remained a 'Jap.' "

Over the years, the Japanese have bought up Kuniyoshi's work and he has become a popular artistic prophet in his native land.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

A 20th-century artist who was declared both a major American modernist and an enemy alien is now having his day at the Smithsonian. NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg finds his work intriguing and sad.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: In 1906, 16-year-old Yasuo Kuniyoshi came here alone from Japan, made his name as a painter, showed at the Museum of Modern Art at age 40, longed for American citizenship but was denied it, was an enemy alien during World War II, died in 1953 and pretty much disappeared from public memory. But curator Tom Wolf says, don't overdo the hardships.

TOM WOLF: He was a fun-loving guy. He was a party animal. He had tons of friends. The other artists loved him. And he was so thrilled that he was able to become so successful. So it wasn't all suffering and tragedy.

STAMBERG: Kuniyoshi was successful in his lifetime, right up there with O'Keeffe and Hopper.

JOANN MOSER: He exhibited with these people. He won prizes.

STAMBERG: American Art Museum co-curator Joann Moser says, however, that after Pearl Harbor, things changed.

MOSER: When he walked down the street, he looked like the enemy.

STAMBERG: Anxieties as a Japanese-American show in his work. The colors are somber. The faces he paints - highly stylized, flat, folk art-ish - are often fearful. Babies and children are never cuddly. His "Boy Stealing Fruit," from 1923, stairs warily, a banana in one hand, the other reaching for more. What is that - a peach? Inside...

MOSER: It's a peach.

STAMBERG: Oh, it looks so good.

MOSER: It does. But, you know what I think it refers to? There's a very famous Japanese folk tale about a little boy and a peach. And so I think that is a reference to his Japanese childhood.

STAMBERG: The chubby child could be cute, but he's not. Neither is the baby on his mother's shoulders in another '20s canvas, "Child Frightened By Water." Even the later, bright fuchsia pictures from the 1950s have grim details, a reference to death on the Fourth of July, a scary face behind a colorful mask. It's easy to see biography in Kuniyoshi's work. The fun-loving party animal had lots to deal with. Anti-Asian prejudice went back a long way. In 1919, he married a Caucasian American.

MOSER: And at the time they got married, she lost her citizenship because he was marrying an Asian man.

STAMBERG: During the war, Kuniyoshi wasn't sent from New York to an internment camp like West Coast Japanese. But there were restrictions.

MOSER: His camera was taken away from him. His binoculars were taken away. His bank account was frozen.

STAMBERG: Kuniyoshi was devoted to America, deeply patriotic.

MOSER: So when the Department of Defense asked him to do some drawings for propaganda posters, he was eager to do that.

STAMBERG: He sketched a mother and child hanged from a tree as a Japanese soldier leaves the scene. In "Clean Up This Mess," a woman's hand discards a bag filled with Japanese symbols, a flag, a samurai sword. The posters never got made, but the anti-Japanese sentiment was clear. How difficult it must have been for Kuniyoshi, repudiating his roots, uneasily replanted in a beloved new land.

WOLF: Oh, I think he was very torn, and it was a terrible period in his life.

STAMBERG: The artistic journey of Yasuo Kuniyoshi at the American Art Museum through the end of this month is his first retrospective in more than 65 years. Abstract expressionism and newer movements nudged him off the art scene after he died in '53. Curator Joann Moser says this show is a reminder of Kuniyoshi's American experience.

MOSER: He was really one of the most highly respected and esteemed American artists. So within artist circles, he functioned very well. He had many friends. But outside the artist circles, he remained a Jap.

STAMBERG: Over the years, the Japanese have bought up Kuniyoshis. And he has become a popular artistic prophet in his native land. In Washington, I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.