Enigmatic and engaging, the work of figurative artist Yasuo Kuniyoshi (1889–1953) combines American folk and Surrealist art with dreamlike perspectives (exhibition catalogue; 16). Influenced by early American art, modernism, and Japanese artistic expressions—such as flatness of form—his pictures are simultaneously rooted in tradition and the avant-garde and often underscore his proclivity toward contradictions (33). An artist frequently overlooked, Kuniyoshi immigrated to the United States from Japan in 1906, eventually residing in New York until his death in 1953. While critics considered him less frequently than his contemporaries, when reviewed, his works were positively received. The 2015 exhibition of his work at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM), The Artistic Journey of Yasuo Kuniyoshi, chronicles this important mid-century artist whose aesthetic offers a counterpoint to the dominant art-historical narrative of a modernism that increasingly emphasized abstraction. It enhances an understanding of the period by presenting its diversity, and highlights how Kuniyoshi, like many artists, maintained a figurative dimension in his art throughout his career.
Displaying sixty-six works ranging from his early output to his circus period, the show provides an overview of Kuniyoshi’s trajectory. Tales of hope, struggle, disappointment, and dynamism emerge through an attention to Kuniyoshi’s changing artistic interests. Co-curated by Bard College art-history professor Tom Wolf and SAAM deputy chief curator Joann Moser, and accompanied by a substantive catalogue authored by Wolf, the exhibition invites visitors to travel through one artist’s struggle to express himself during a time when his expression was being systematically discouraged because of his national origin (42). His career ascended between the world wars, and peaked when the United States severely restricted the lives of Japanese immigrants. These restrictions included house arrest as well as limitations on travel, which required his first gaining permission from local authorities (ShiPu Wang, “Japan Against Japan: U.S. Propaganda and Yasuo Kuniyoshi’s Identity Crisis,” American Art 22, no. 1 [Spring 2008]: 32). Wolf describes this time for Kuniyoshi as one of “terrible stress and anxiety” (61). His approach to art ranged in expression from humorous to haunting, correlating, as the exhibition seems to suggest, to life experiences. For example, Wolf writes, “His anxious subjects also appeared at the time that the U.S. government was enacting the Asian Exclusion Act of 1924, which made it illegal for people from Asia to immigrate to the United States” (31).
The exhibition’s structure offers multiple opportunities for dialogue between paintings and works on paper, highlighting several overarching themes. The first is the search for a sense of self: an identity, place, and purpose. This theme anchors the exhibition, both figuratively and literally. And it seems to be of significant concern for Kuniyoshi. A major painting entitled Self-Portrait as a Golf Player (1927) forms the foundation of this idea, with its strategic placement toward the entrance of the show and its visibility from multiple vantage points throughout the exhibition. In it, Kuniyoshi takes on the role of a country club member unattainable by him. Kuniyoshi shows himself dressed to play golf in the center foreground. He looks out at the viewer, yet from a three-quarter angle, as he cautiously positions his face to avoid direct confrontation. This caution is reiterated in his stance, as well as the ominous brown backdrop of sky. The earth-toned waves in the background contrast with the straightforward nature of his painting style, and yet complement his approach: an artist in search, artistically, personally. As he tries on outfits, so too does he try on personas, acting the part to determine fit. The many self-portraits throughout the show evidence this trying out of selves. A small alcove of works, Kuniyoshi’s renditions of masks, plays with the idea of being exposed (for example, I Wear a Mask Today [1946–47]). With this and other pieces, Kuniyoshi struggles to transform and better himself, and searches for ways to hide, reveal, but also assert himself. The interest in masks seems to correlate to Kuniyoshi’s experiences with prejudice and persecution, at times on account of appearance.
A second pictorial theme is that of emotion: the experience of beauty and pain, a contrasting set of ideas relevant to Kuniyoshi’s worldview (30). Kuniyoshi was an activist, assuming leadership positions in various organizations, and even devoting creative energy to drawings for the World War II U.S. Office of War Information (51–52; 62). His regular speeches and appearances for pro-democracy organizations cemented his position in the arts community (64). Kuniyoshi draws torture and tremendous pain, but renders it with extreme concern for the beauty of the depiction. These works reveal the artist’s interest in contours and form, with the smoky application of charcoal creating a tactile quality that invites the viewer for a closer look only to be repelled by the pain of the subject. In particular, the poignant and painful piece Murdered (1944) is intentionally placed in the corner of an alcove, inviting a contemplative conversation.
A third theme brings together deception, happiness, and fear, reflected in Kuniyoshi’s late paintings, which hang in the final gallery. Here, haunting circus scenes of distorted shapes and exaggerated figures are depicted in bright paints. These works draw the viewer into what appears to be lighthearted scenes. These eerie paintings are exemplified by Mr. Ace (1952) as well as Forbidden Fruit (1950) and Fakirs (1951), where the overly wide grin of the circus performer at the center encapsulates the relevant themes of the painting: confrontation, confusion, and intrigue. The circus not only presented Kuniyoshi with the opportunity to paint exaggerated forms imbued with bright and muted color, but also to express his individuality and even veiled aspects of his biography. In fact, the subject was one the artist explored throughout his life. Wolf describes the artist’s interest: “he sometimes made money by doing a vaudeville act on Broadway. . . . The image of the performer, an alter ego for the artist” (37). These final paintings incorporate many of the ideas of his earlier works, i.e., humor, pain, seduction, beauty, form, flatness, movement, and elegance. Wrapped in each image, Kuniyoshi beautifully tells a tale that the viewer can completely comprehend and yet continue to search for meaning.
Throughout his career Kuniyoshi worked with the female form. He often combined his interest in painting women with that of a number of other scenes; some paintings are solely comprised of female nudes, while others combine women and masks with still-life elements as well as women placed in a range of backgrounds, including land- and seascapes. An entire corridor of the show intersperses his images of women with those of still lifes, while another alcove includes four large paintings, all of women. Additionally, he incorporates images of women into his circus themes. His sinuous handling of line and curving of form is strikingly rendered in his depictions of female bodies.
The Artistic Journey of Yasuo Kuniyoshi is an intriguing exhibition that shows the development of a significant mid-century artist. Throughout, alcoves provide opportunities for intimate, private interactions with the works. The curators strategically place smaller and more delicate works—in terms of material and subject—in these spaces. This smart use of space allows the curators to show Kuniyoshi’s artistic journey in great detail without losing sight of the varying trajectories of his large paintings. The exhibition pays homage to an artist who has been sidelined in the scholarship on American art. Amid many scholars’ recognition of the need to broaden the art-historical canon so as to include artists previously relegated to its margins, this exhibition attests to both the quality of Kuniyoshi’s work and the importance of a rewriting of the history of the period. This exhibition not only reviews the paintings and drawings of Kuniyoshi, but also underscores the importance of expanding an awareness of this period.
Sybil E. Gohari
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