Sunday, April 5, 2015

Lots of Yasuo Kuniyoshi

If you are a fan of Yasuo Kuniyoshi or, like me, you've never heard of him before, but would like to know more about this major figure in American modernism, head right over to the Smithsonian American Art Museum for two exhibits on this Japanese-American artist.

Because the small show put up by the museum's archives closes in July, and the major retrospective in the museum proper closes in August, I went to see the archives exhibit first.  I would recommend this, especially for anyone who, like myself, is unfamiliar with Kuniyoshi and his work.  By seeing the archives show first, you get a sense of him as a man, as an artist and as an activist which will stand you in good stead when you go to the see the big show.

Kuniyoshi was born in Japan, but came to the United States as a teenager and spent the rest of his life here.  He had intended to stay a short while and learn enough English to return to Japan as a teacher.  Instead, instructors at the high school he attended noticed his artistic talent, and he stayed in the United States, becoming a member of artistic circles in New York and Ogunquit, Maine (a lovely small town in the southern-most part of the state that I have been fortunate enough to visit).  Considered one of the most brilliant painters of his era, he was named an "enemy alien" during WWII, and was deprived of his camera (Kuniyoshi was a very talented photographer, as well as a painter and printmaker), his radio and his binoculars.  He was limited in his movements and under the eye of the U.S. government for the duration of the war.

This feeling of alienation, of being outside the mainstream, of separateness from society comes though in his works.  Many of his paintings are of circus performers, another group on the outskirts of American society.  The picture above is of a strong woman and a boy, perhaps her son.  Neither of the figures look directly at the viewer; they keep their distance, even while being put on display.

Many of his paintings show pain and alienation; I found myself enjoying the show, but also feeling a sense of sadness as I looked at the pieces.  One of a group entitled "Maine Family," I found reminded me of a Charles Addams drawing, and the Addams family is nothing if not unlike the run-of-the-mill suburban parents and children.

Verdict: Worth spending some time in both shows.  The archives display is very manageable in a lunch hour; you'll have to move quickly to see everything in the big show in a short amount of time.

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