Between Two Worlds: The Unveiling of Yasuo Kuniyoshi

When the Whitney Museum of American Art decided to stage in 1948 their first exhibition of a living American artist, they chose someone who wasn’t even an American citizen, but only legally could become one just before his death. Painter Yasuo Kuniyoshi came to America as a teenager and immersed himself in American culture and art while rising to the top of his profession, all while facing discrimination based on his Japanese heritage.  The exhibition The Artistic Journey of Yasuo Kuniyoshi, which runs through August 30, 2015 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC, unveils an amazing story of an artist who lived between two worlds — East and West — while bridging them in his art that not only synthesized different traditions, but also mirrored the joys and cruelties of them.

When the Whitney Museum of American Art decided to stage in 1948 their first exhibition of a living American artist, they chose someone who wasn’t even an American citizen, but only legally could become one just before his death. Painter Yasuo Kuniyoshi came to America as a teenager and immersed himself in American culture and art while rising to the top of his profession, all while facing discrimination based on his Japanese heritage. The exhibition The Artistic Journey of Yasuo Kuniyoshi, which runs through August 30, 2015, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC, unveils an amazing story of an artist who lived between two worlds — East and West — while bridging them in his art that not only synthesized different traditions, but also mirrored the joys and cruelties of them.


Although Japanese museums have presented several Kuniyoshi shows since that 1948 Whitney exhibition, this SAAM exhibition is the first comprehensive show about Kuniyoshi since the Whitney’s. Of the 66 paintings and drawings selected by the SAAM curators to best represent Kuniyoshi’s diversity, many works borrowed from Japanese collections haven’t been seen in Kuniyoshi’s adopted country in over 25 years. Aside from the evolving prejudices against Kuniyoshi and his art, another reason behind this long wait is the difficulty of Kuniyoshi’s narrative — the “artistic journey” promised in the exhibition title. “Kuniyoshi’s art is subtle and sophisticated, idiosyncratic and unique,” Kuniyoshi scholar and guest curator Tom Wolf explains in the catalog. “During the course of his career it ranged from deadpan humor through erotic sensuality to deep tragedy. It is rich and profound, and should be better known.” To make Kuniyoshi better known, co-curators Wolf and Joann Moser split Kuniyoshi’s life and art into three sections: before World War II (1918-1938), during the war (1939-1945), and after the war (1946-1953).  Stuck between two worlds engaged in war, Kuniyoshi found himself split as well.

Sixteen-year-old Kuniyoshi left his native Japan in 1906, first arriving in Vancouver before working his way as a fruit picker and bellhop to Los Angeles, where he enrolled in high school. His high school art teacher recognized Kuniyoshi’s potential and encouraged him to study art in New York City, where he enrolled at the Art Students League (and later taught there). In New York City, Kuniyoshi both learned painting and formed friendships with other artists (including his wife Katherine Schmidt) that completed his education as an American. Looking at archival photos of Kuniyoshi surrounded by his non-Asian friends, you get a sense of just how accepted he was by this circle of artists, yet still isolated in early 20th century America.

Kuniyoshi’s work of this early period shows him both tramping through a jungle of influences as well as unveiling his own, unique persona. Landscape (1920) represents, as Wolf writes, “a transitional piece” in which Kuniyoshi not only resolves the pleasures and challenges of Renoir and Cézanne, but does so while also merging Cezanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire motif with the Mount Fuji motif of traditional Japanese art. Similarly, 1927’s Self-Portrait as a Golf Player pokes fun at Kuniyoshi’s avid pursuit of the popular American craze for golf (which didn’t hit Japan until after WWII), but does so by assuming a warrior’s stance and replacing the shogun’s sword with a driver. As he does throughout the catalog, Wolf wonderfully traces all the broader influences in Kuniyoshi’s art, but also hunts down specific examples, such as El Greco’s Vincenzo Anastagi portrait, which most likely served as a heroic portrait template for Kuniyoshi to start from and take in a new, interesting, idiosyncratic direction.

Adding another dimension to Kuniyoshi’s humorous self-portrait were the very real insults to him by 1920s-era America.  SAAM Director Elizabeth Broun recounts how Kuniyoshi’s life “was also clouded by constant anxiety related to his immigrant status.” These tears of a multicultural clown (a frequent modern art motif he uses throughout his career) can only be seen if one is able to look closely and decode Kuniyoshi’s clues hidden in plain sight. Thanks to the “nativist racism” endemic to America at the time (and rooted philosophically in the same race theories the Nazis followed), Kuniyoshi and his wife suffered greatly. When Schmidt married Kuniyoshi in 1919, her family disowned her, refusing to even speak to her for six years. Additionally, by marrying Kuniyoshi, who, as a Japanese person, could not legally become an American citizen at the time, Schmidt, by law, lost her own American citizenship.  And, yet, they bore these sacrifices with a continued faith in art and the American dream. During a trip to Japan in 1931 to see his ailing father, Kuniyoshi witnessed the growing militarism of his native country and returned to America with a new purpose.

In Self-Portrait as a Photographer (from 1924; shown above), Kuniyoshi comments on his divided self. To supplement his income, Kuniyoshi photographed art for publication in magazines, etc. He shows himself emerging from beneath the cloth camera hood, revealing his (exaggerated) Asian features. There’s something Frida Kahlo-esque in this exaggeration, as if Kuniyoshi portrayed how he felt others negatively perceived his Asian ethnicity just as Kahlo emphasized her unibrow to reveal her inner anguish. Then there’s the landscape Kuniyoshi’s photographing.  “Is the landscape a view out the window, or is it a painting of a landscape?” the wall text asks. “Is the landscape black and white because the photograph will be monochrome? Or do the gray landscape and barren trees suggest that he sees a bleak future?” In contrast to the standard view of Kuniyoshi as a “straightforward artist,” Wolf asserts that works such as Self-Portrait as a Photographer show Kuniyoshi’s “conceptually intricate” side.

Additional “conceptually intricate” (and Kahlo-esque) images emerge in Kuniyoshi’s women portraits of the 1930s. Wolf sees these darkly sensual, brooding women as proxies for Kuniyoshi’s own mental state. In 1935’s Daily News, the inclusion of a newspaper — full of the drumbeats of oncoming world war — subtly suggests Kuniyoshi’s growing anxieties over his ambiguous national status. Despite growing recognition as an artist, including inclusion in Paintings by 19 Living Americans (the MoMA’s second-ever exhibition), Kuniyoshi never shook critics who challenged his “American” credentials.  That Kuniyoshi would slip these anxieties into a series of sensual sex objects says just as much about his powerfully creative, synthesizing imagination as it does about his fears of revealing too much too obviously.

Those fears about his alien status rose to new heights after Pearl Harbor. Living in New York City at the time, Kuniyoshi evaded the internment camps Japanese-Americans faced on the West Coast. However, the government seized Kuniyoshi’s camera, forbade him to take pictures, restricted his movements between his New York apartment and home in Woodstock, and even placed him under curfew. As if to prove his “Americanness,” Kuniyoshi began working for the Office of War Information making anti-Japanese propaganda art. In images reminiscent of Goya’s Disasters of War, Kuniyoshi depicted Japanese military atrocities of torture (including 1940s-style waterboarding) against the Chinese to argue that such Asian-on-Asian violence proved that WWII was a war of ideology, not race. In “Japan against Japan” radio speeches, Kuniyoshi continually denounced the Japanese militarism he personally separated from the larger Japanese tradition. America’s atomic bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki inspired Kuniyoshi to paint the 1945 hellscape of Rotting on the Shore, a powerfully pessimistic view of the aftermath of WWII in which Kuniyoshi consistently denounces the disasters of war’s human cost, regardless of the perpetrator.

After the war, Kuniyoshi continued to rise in prominence as an American artist, despite his lack of American citizenship. Just one year after the end of the war, the U.S. State Department purchased Kuniyoshi’s 1925 painting Circus Girl Resting to include in their Advancing American Art exhibition to tour overseas. Charges of obscenity and “un-American” politics against the show and Kuniyoshi (including President Harry S. Truman’s own bluntly, negative critique), however, eventually led to the cancellation of the tour. When artists from various disciplines formed the Artists Equity Association in 1947, they elected Kuniyoshi as their first president. Sadly, Kuniyoshi, the man whom the American establishment never fully accepted, became the face for the establishment in the eyes of the post-war generation of “The Irascibles” and Abstract Expressionists. Ironically, as Wolf points out, “[a]lthough he was on the other side of the generational divide from the abstract expressionists, [Kuniyoshi’s] work evolved in ways that paralleled their innovations.” Sumi ink drawings such as the disturbingly masterful Fish Head from the final years of Kuniyoshi’s life tap into the same Japanese tradition that Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, and other young guns would years later. Torn between the two worlds of East and West so long, the final two worlds Kuniyoshi found himself unfairly stretched between were the establishment past and the expressionist future.

In 1953, the final year of his life, as cancer slowly took his life while family rushed to complete the citizenship application finally made possible in 1952 by the McCarran–Walter Act, Kuniyoshi drew Old Tree. An archival photo shows Kuniyoshi cutting into the dark ink with sharp tools to produce the complex, textured look of the tree. “The tree is upright and weathered, complicated and powerful, and scarred by experience,” Wolf concludes in the catalog. “It stands for Kuniyoshi himself, a fitting finale to the artist’s rich and accomplished career.” With the 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings coming next month, The Artistic Journey of Yasuo Kuniyoshi is a beautifully rich and nuanced visual rendering of the human drama of Japanese-Americans in the 20th century torn between two worlds but, like Kuniyoshi, resilient as oak, but as flexible imaginatively and spiritually as a willow.

[Image: Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Self-Portrait as a Photographer, 1924. Oil on canvas. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Bequest of Scofield Thayer, 1982. © Estate of Yasuo Kuniyoshi/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.]

[Many thanks to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC, for providing me with the image above and other press materials related to the exhibition The Artistic Journey of Yasuo Kuniyoshi, which runs through August 30, 2015. Many thanks also to D Giles Ltd. for providing me with a review copy of the catalog to the show, The Artistic Journey of Yasuo Kuniyoshi by Tom Wolf, with an introduction by Elizabeth Broun.]

[Please follow me on Twitter (@BobDPictureThis) and Facebook (Art Blog By Bob) for more art news and views.]

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Beer is history's happiest accident. Though the discovery probably happened much earlier, our earliest evidence for beer dates back roughly 13,000 years ago. Around this time, the people of the Fertile Crescent had begun to gather grains as a food source and learned that if they moistened them, they could release their sweetness to create a gruel much tastier than the grains themselves.

One day a curious — or perhaps tightfisted — hunter-gatherer hid his gruel away for a safekeeping. When he returned, he found the bowl giving off a tangy odor. Not one to waste a meal, he ate it anyway and enjoyed an unexpected, though not unpleasant, sensation of ease. By pure happenstance, this ancestor stumbled upon brewing.

That's one possible origin story, but we know that our ancestors learned to control the process, and beer took a central role in Fertile Crescent civilizations — so central that Professor Patrick McGovern, a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that beer, not bread, incentivized hunter-gatherers to relinquish their nomadic ways.

Beer may also be proof of a God who wants us to be happy (Dionysus?), because the beverage* would be independently rediscovered by peoples across the ancient world, including those in China and South America.

One such peoples, the pre-Inca Wari Civilization, made beer, specifically chicha de molle, a critical component in their religious and cultural ceremonies. In fact, a study published in Sustainability in April argues that the role was so important that beer helped keep Wari civilization intact for 500 years.

Brewing social capital

Twenty years ago, a team of archaeologists with the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, discovered a brewery in Cerro Baúl, a mesa in southern Peru that served as an ancient Wari outpost. The brewery contained original equipment, clay storage vessels, and compartments for milling, boiling, and fermentation.

The team recently analyzed these on-site vessels to uncover the secrets of the Wari brewing process. Removing tiny amounts of material found in the spaces between the clay, they were able to reconstruct the molecules of the thousand-year-old drink. They then worked alongside Peruvian brewers to recreate the original brewing process.**

Their molecular analysis revealed several key features of the beer: The clay used to make the vessels came from a nearby site; many of the beer's ingredients, such as molle berries, are drought resistant; and though alcoholic, the beer only kept for about a week.

These details suggest that Cerro Baúl maintained a steady supply of chicha, limited by neither trade nor fair weather, and became a central hub for anyone wishing to partake. The Wari would likely make such trips during times of festivals and religious ceremonies. Social elites would consume chicha in vessels shaped like Wari gods and leaders as part of rituals attesting to social norms and a shared cultural mythology and heritage.

"People would have come into this site, in these festive moments, in order to recreate and reaffirm their affiliation with these Wari lords and maybe bring tribute and pledge loyalty to the Wari state," Ryan Williams, lead author and head of anthropology at the Field Museum, said in a release. "We think these institutions of brewing and then serving the beer really formed a unity among these populations. It kept people together."

The Wari civilization was spread over a vast area of rain forests and highlands. In a time when news traveled at the speed of a llama, such distinct and distant geography could easily have fractured the Wari civilization into competing locales.

Instead, the researchers argue, these festive gatherings (aided by the promise of beer) strengthened social capital enough to maintain a healthy national unity. This helped the Wari civilization last from 600 to 1100 CE, an impressive run for a historic civilization.

Bringing people together (since 10,000 BCE)

A Mesopotamian cylinder seal shows people drinking beer through long reed straws. Image source: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Of course, the Wari weren't the first civilization to use beer to reaffirm bonds and maintain their social fabric. Returning to the Fertile Crescent, Sumerians regarded beer as a hallmark of their civilization.

The Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh tells of the adventures of the titular hero and his friend Enkidu. Enkidu beings as a savage living in the wilderness, but a young woman introduces him to the ways of civilization. That orientation begins with food and beer:

"They placed food in front of him,
They placed beer in front of him,
Enkidu knew nothing about eating bread for food,
And of drinking beer he had not been taught.
The young woman spoke Enkidu, saying:
"Eat the food, Enkidu, it is the way one lives.
Drink the beer, as is the custom of the land."
Enkidu ate the food until he was sated,
He drank the beer — seven jugs! — and became expansive
and sang with joy.
He was elated and his face glowed.
He splashed his shaggy body with water
and rubbed himself with oil, and turned into a human
."

Tom Standage, who recounts this scene in his History of the World in 6 Glasses, writes: "The Mesopotamians regarded the consumption of bread and beer as one of the things that distinguished them from savages and made them fully human." Such civilized staples not only demarcated their orderly life from that of hunter-gatherers, they also served a key role in their culture's unifying mythology.

Furthermore, Standage notes, Sumerian iconography often shows two people sipping from waist-high jars through reed straws. The earliest beers were consumed in a similar fashion because technological limitations prevented baking individual cups or filtering the beverage. But the Sumerians had the pottery skills to make such cups and filter the dregs. That they kept the tradition suggests that they valued the camaraderie brought by the experience, a sign of communal hospitality and kinship.

The ancient Greek's similarly used alcohol as a means of maintaining social and political relationships — though their drink of choice was wine.

During symposiums, upper-class Greek men would gather for a night of drinking, entertainment, and social bonding. In Alcohol: A history, Rod Phillips notes that symposiums were serious affairs where art, politics, and philosophy were discussed throughout the night and could serve as rites of passage for young men. (Though, music, drinking games, and sex with prostitutes may also be found on the itinerary.)

Of course, we can amass social capital without resorting to alcohol, which has been known to damage social relationships as much as improve them.

In the 17th century, London's coffeehouses stimulated the minds of thinkers with their caffeine-laden drinks, but also served as social hubs. Unlike the examples we've explored already, these coffeehouses brought together people of different backgrounds and expertise, unifying them in their pursuit of ideas and truths. Thus, coffeehouses can be seen as the nurseries of the Enlightenment.

Relearning ancient lessons

The Field Museum archaeologists hope their research can help remind us the importance social institutions and cultural practices have in creating our common bonds, whether such institutions are BYOB or not.

"This research is important because it helps us understand how institutions create the binds that tie together people from very diverse constituencies and very different backgrounds," Williams said. "Without them, large political entities begin to fragment and break up into much smaller things. Brexit is an example of this fragmentation in the European Union today. We need to understand the social constructs that underpin these unifying features if we want to be able to maintain political unity in society."

So, grab a beer or coffee or tea, spend some time together, and raise a glass. Just try not focus too much on whether your friend ordered Budweiser's swill or an overpriced, virtue-signaling microbrew IPA.

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