Postwar Imagery 1946 — 1953

Online Gallery of The Artistic Journey of Yasuo Kuniyoshi

A colorful painting of two clown figures.

Fakirs, 1951, Oil on canvas, 50 ¼ in x 32 ¼ in. (127.7 x 82 cm), Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Sara Roby Foundation, 1986.6.93, Art © Estate of Yasuo Kuniyoshi/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

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.

Kuniyoshi expressed these complex emotions in his art. In unpublished autobiographical notes from 1944 he wrote: “If a man feels deeply about the war, or any sorrow or gladness, his feeling should be symbolized in his expression, no matter what medium he chooses.” The artist’s postwar paintings are dramatically different from his earlier work, with brighter, even acidic colors and compositions that suggest chaos and confusion. In them is an underlying sense of disillusionment and bitterness. The forms are symbolic, but the meaning of the symbols is often unclear.

About this Work

Fakirs presents one of the most menacing images of Kuniyoshi’s career. The clown with the long, pointy nose, green mask, and folded hat seems threatening as he noisily blows his own horn. A small, white-faced figure with a party hat dangles from his arm, while another clown figure peeks in at the left. Who are these strange misshapen figures?

The word fakirs recalls a tradition from New York’s Art Students League, where Kuniyoshi studied as a young man and later taught for two decades, in which students organized a costume ball to mock the conservative and conventional art they disdained. They called themselves the Society of American Fakirs and painted “fakes” of academic paintings, which they sold at an auction accompanied by a parade, a sideshow, and a ball.

A large gold hand held up palm forward in the gesture of a vow is a focal point of the composition. Might this suggest the cynical hypocrisy of the 1950s congressional investigations that Kuniyoshi considered a travesty of justice and a sideshow of the American political system? Or were other clowns and sideshows haunting him then?