April 2, 2015 — August 29, 2015
The Smithsonian American Art Museum is organizing a major exhibition about Yasuo Kuniyoshi (1889-1953), a preeminent 20th century modernist whose talents and contributions rivaled those of his contemporaries including Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keeffe and Stuart Davis.
Kuniyoshi emigrated to America from Japan as a teenager, rising to prominence in the New York art world during the 1920s to become one of the most esteemed artists in America between the two world wars. He drew on American folk art, Japanese design and iconography and European modernism to create a distinctive visual style. Kuniyoshi defined himself as an American artist while at the same time remaining very aware that his Japanese origins played an important role in his identity and artistic practices.
His inventive, humorous early works often included subtle color harmonies, simplified shapes, oddly proportioned figures and an eccentric handling of space and scale. His work became more sensuous and worldly after two long stays in Paris, as he painted moody, reflective women and still lifes with unusual objects.
Kuniyoshi was thoroughly integrated into American life and the art world, but immigration law prevented him from becoming an American citizen. Classified an “enemy alien” after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he remained steadfastly on the side of his adopted country during the painful war years, working with the Office of War Information to create artworks indicting Japanese atrocities. After the war, Kuniyoshi developed a compelling late style, with bitter subjects and paradoxically bright colors.
The Artistic Journey of Yasuo Kuniyoshi is the first comprehensive overview of his work by a U.S. museum in more than 65 years. The exhibition traces Kuniyoshi’s career though 66 of his finest paintings and drawings, chosen from leading public and private collections in America and Japan. The guest curator is the leading Kuniyoshi scholar Tom Wolf, professor of art history at Bard College. Joann Moser, deputy chief curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, is co-curator.
The years of World War II were traumatic for Kuniyoshi. Immediately after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the US government reclassified Kuniyoshi as an “enemy alien,” impounded his bank account, confiscated his camera and binoculars, and restricted his travel outside New York City. Nonetheless, he remained a fervent believer in the democratic system and a fierce opponent of Japanese militarism. He worked actively to support the Allies, recording radio broadcasts to the people of Japan for Voice of America and making propaganda drawings for the Office of War Information.
For most Americans the end of World War II represented a great victory and triumphant confirmation of the ideals for which they had fought. Kuniyoshi’s emotions were more complicated. As an American, he shared in the joy of success, but he also felt anxiety, even despair, over the war and its aftermath. He felt empathy for his fellow Japanese immigrants who were placed in internment camps during the war but was hesitant to express his concerns overtly for fear of seeming unpatriotic. He was ashamed of the brutality of the Japanese army but also felt sympathy for the victims of the atomic bombs. On the political front, he was appalled by the postwar witch-hunts of the House Un-American Activities Committee. On the artistic front, he felt out of step with abstract expressionism, which was emerging as the dominant style of American art, at home and abroad.
Curator of the exhibitions Joann Moser writes about "The Artistic Journey of Yasuo Kuniyoshi" (April 3–August 30, 2015), the first solo exhibition of Kuniyoshi’s work presented in the United States in twenty-five years.
“Yas,” as Kuniyoshi was affectionately known, enjoyed a large circle of friends and moved easily among artists who worked in a variety of styles. He was outgoing and congenial, whether interacting with his fellow artists professionally or socially.
The Artistic Journey of Yasuo Kuniyoshi is organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
American Honda Motor Co., Inc., provided leadership support for the exhibition.
We are especially grateful to Mr. Soichiro Fukutake for his major support of the book and exhibition, for his generosity in lending artworks from the Fukutake Collection in Okayama, and for his long advocacy for this artist.
Additional generous contributions have been provided by: All Nippon Airways Co., Ltd., E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation, Fukutake Foundation, Raymond J. and Margaret Horowitz Endowment, The Japan Foundation, Japan-United States Friendship Commission, Peter and Paula Lunder, Friends of Franklin Riehlman, Sara Roby Foundation, Share Fund, and Yasuda Fine Arts Inc.