Yasuo Kuniyoshi: Bearing the Weight

Opening today, the exhibition, The Artistic Journey of Yasuo Kuniyoshi, looks at the evolution of the artist's work, and is the first comprehensive exhibition about the artist in the U.S. since 1948. It remains on view through August 30, 2015.

I was first drawn to the work of Yasuo Kuniyoshi through his painting from 1924 in American Art's Sara Roby collection, Strong Woman and Child, executed during a crucial period in the artist's life. Here, the unlikely pair (mother and son?) stand on a stage-like platform as if they've just performed some feats of strength, a dumbbell at their feet. Kuniyoshi, a photographer and printer as well as a painter, was born in Japan in 1889, and came to the US when he was a teenager. He would teach at the influential Art Students League in New York City, and became a star of the New York art world in the 1920s, the time when he painted Strong Woman and Child. He became one of the most celebrated modernist artists in America between the two world wars, mentioned alongside Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keeffe and Stuart Davis. In 1948, Kuniyoshi became the first living artist to be given a retrospective exhibition at the Whitney Museum.

Influenced by American folk art, Japanese traditions, and European modernism, Kuniyoshi's art soared, but his immigrant status brought difficulties, especially during a wave of anti-immigrant fervor in the 1920s. In 1941, in the wake of Pearl Harbor, he was designated an enemy alien by the U.S. government. According to co-curator Joann Moser, deputy chief curator at American Art, “[Kuniyoshi's] paintings reveal a story of aspirations, disappointments, a striving for meaning and a place as an immigrant in America.”

Be sure to take a look at other works by Yasuo Kuniyoshi in our online exhibition.