Between Two Worlds: Folk Culture, Identity, and the American Art of Yasuo Kuniyoshi - PDF

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Between Two Worlds: Folk Culture, Identity, and the American Art of Yasuo Kuniyoshi G A IL L EV IN For Mutsuko Hoshino and Ritsuko T. Ozawa The Japanese-born painter Yasuo Kuniyoshi s work exemplifies
Between Two Worlds: Folk Culture, Identity, and the American Art of Yasuo Kuniyoshi G A IL L EV IN For Mutsuko Hoshino and Ritsuko T. Ozawa The Japanese-born painter Yasuo Kuniyoshi s work exemplifies cultural hybridity and cross-fertilization, and the issue of his two cultures has preoccupied critics from the moment he caught public attention. In 1922, the year of his first solo show at the Daniel Gallery in New York, the painter s American patron Hamilton Easter Field wrote, Yasuo Kuniyoshi... has expressed the ideal of modern Japan and of modern America as he has read them fused together in his own heart. He has used an alien technique as if it were his own language. 1 That same year William Murrell, writing in the first monograph on Kuniyoshi, ventured a related judgment: Yasuo Kuniyoshi is perhaps the only Japanese now painting in America whose work is free from both Oriental and Occidental academic influences as such,... the single instance of a selective blending of dynamic elements from two great traditions into a style distinctly original. 2 By the time of Kuniyoshi s second show at the Daniel Gallery only a year later, a critic noted, His training and outlook seem to have been entirely Occidental and at first view of his work there no trace of the Orient appears, no semblance of racial attitude towards art. But later one finds the East as well as the West.... In his black and white work, the Oriental peeps out further in exquisite abstract forms, where there is surprisingly the most meticulous interest in detail. 3 Stylistic fusion in Kuniyoshi s work also figured in Lloyd Goodrich s 1948 catalogue essay for the painter s Whitney Museum show, the first solo exhibition at the museum; and the subject features in important recent studies of Kuniyoshi by Tom Wolf and Jane Myers. 4 Turning from style per se, my own research has revealed that Kuniyoshi depicted certain objects and themes that prove, on closer examination, to be typical of the culture a Japanese boy would have absorbed while growing up and which therefore must come from the stack of past memories that, according to Kuniyoshi, exercised such a powerful and longstanding influence on his work. 5 Alexandra Munroe has written: Critics who wrote about Kuniyoshi s art commonly felt the need to link elements of his painting style to vague and unfounded notions of traditional Japanese aesthetics. Even Lloyd Goodrich could not resist: The artist s concern with all forms of life, down to the most minute snakes and birds, flowers and weeds recalls traditional Japanese art. 6 She insists that contrary to what has been written, he did not paint the attributes of an exotic cultural heritage. He painted his personal reality, which he saw as a paradox. 7 Yet Munroe s analysis, like those of the several other writers I have mentioned, does not acknowledge the way that the culturally rich, autobiographical content of Kuniyoshi s work reflects the hybrid that he wrought from two cultures. References to Japanese culture often co-exist in his work with his references to American culture, for Kuniyoshi was truly torn between two worlds. To fully understand Kuniyoshi and his work, we must heed his own words and search out the memories of the past about which he himself alerted us so often in writings, speeches, and interviews. Born in Okayama, Japan, in 1889, Kuniyoshi, at the age of sixteen in 1906, emigrated by himself to the United States. He returned to Japan only once, in 1931, for fewer than four months. The occasion for Kuniyoshi s trip was the arrival of an urgent summons for him to return home to see his ailing father. While Kuniyoshi was in Japan from October 1931 to February 1932 he also had an exhibition of his paintings and lithographs that opened in Tokyo and then traveled to Osaka, as well as a second show of his lithographs in his hometown of Okayama. Kuniyoshi wrote from Japan to Carl Zigrosser, his friend at the Weyhe Gallery in New York, telling him that he had spent the first month there preparing for his show, but now he hoped to enjoy himself. He reported that he had seen many paintings and met many important persons, and traveled lot. As happy as he was to have returned to his home, he expressed powerful ambivalence. Of course I was glad to see my 2 Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Japanese Toy Tiger and Odd Objects, The Fukutake Collection, Okayama, Japan. family and they too and I am glad I came to Japan and saw what [it was] all about but after all I don t belong here and I am returning to America as soon as I can make it. 8 More than a decade later, Kuniyoshi told a journalist that during the trip to Japan he really felt foreign. He recalled with anguish, My art was condemned as being too European. I was told I was a barbarian and had lost respect for my people. I was criticized for not observing the elaborate Japanese formality and etiquette of dealing with people. 9 He went on to explain, I got into the most trouble with the policemen... I went up to an officer on a corner one day to ask where a certain street was. Instead of answering, he gave me a terrible bawling out. It seems I should have taken off my hat and stood with head bowed in humility when addressing a member of the government. Now who would do that to a New York cop? 10 By the time Kuniyoshi returned to his birthplace, he had spent more than half of his life in the United States. His memories of childhood and youth in Japan must have collided with shifts toward modernization that had taken place since his departure in Among the many changes Kuniyoshi witnessed was the displacement of handmade crafts by machinemade goods, for example the supplanting of folk toys by machine-made ones. As new modes of rapid transportation became available, there was an accompanying loss of regional distinctions. 11 During his visit Kuniyoshi acquired several papiermâché toy tigers with bobbing heads and detachable tails. Not long after his return to the United States, he featured one of the tigers in a still-life painting, Japanese Toy Tiger and Odd Objects (1932). Katherine Schmidt, his first wife, from whom he would soon be divorced, also painted a picture that included not one, but two, of the tigers he brought home. Called Tiger, Tiger, her canvas does not match the complex cultural resonance of Kuniyoshi s picture Japanese Toy Tiger and Odd Objects. Only eight years after Kuniyoshi s trip home, the Japanese Government Railways published a book about Japanese folk toys, and it lamented their decline in a way that may explain their attraction to Kuniyoshi: The fundamental cause of the decline of folk-toys as well as of many other worthy traditions of our country is the source of what causes us the greatest concern today. We feel that the upholding of racial consciousness provides the only solution to this problem, even though we may not live to see any striking evidence of the success of this solution. 12 Of a type known as Kurashiki hariko, the toy tigers collected and painted by Kuniyoshi came from the town called Kurashiki, located just a few miles from his 3 birthplace in Okayama prefecture. Kurashiki means warehouse village and reflects the ancient town s commercial history; many of its old rice granaries still survive with their distinctive black stone tiles and wood-beamed interiors. It was there that Kuniyoshi could have found in 1931 a bit of old Japan, allowing him to rediscover the ambiance he remembered from his life before Kuniyoshi s nostalgia for his childhood, his nation, and his region coincided with the deep respect for folk art that the art critic and collector Hamilton Easter Field had encouraged in his followers. Until his death in 1922, Field remained close to Kuniyoshi, who lived in one of several houses that Field owned in Brooklyn, New York, and spent his summers with Field in Ogunquit, Maine. The two had met at the historic first exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in New York in spring 1917, at which time Field became Kuniyoshi s first important patron. Impressed by his two paintings in this vast artist-organized, non-juried show, Field, who at the time collected modern art, American folk art, and Japanese woodblock prints, began to support Kuniyoshi. 13 Although Field had even collected work by Picasso, he understood that the American nation is eminently conservative and declared American art must be built on other foundations than those of Cubism or Futurism. 14 Kuniyoshi must have been aware of Field s belief that [Americans] should not allow [them]selves to be drawn away from the task... of creating a national t r a d i t i o n. 15 Kuniyoshi, like several other artists in Field s circle, caught the fever for collecting American folk art in Maine. Field s interest in both American folk art and Japanese woodblock prints may well have prompted Kuniyoshi to recall the folk art and culture of his native land. 16 Kuniyoshi must also have known Marsden Hartley s paintings on the back of glass, inspired by folk art he had seen in both Germany and Maine, ten of which were exhibited at Field s school in the summer of Kuniyoshi himself later tried the technique. Kuniyoshi s interest in American folk art, so typical of his circle, had progressed so far by 1924 that he was able to lend two pieces from his own collection, a folk painting of a locomotive by W. L. Breese and a cow carved from wood, to an exhibition of early American vernacular work at the Whitney Studio Club in New York in February His loans showed how profoundly Kuniyoshi had been assimilated into his new cultural environment, since the show featured works of folk art from collections assembled by other contemporary artists and was selected and arranged by the artist Henry Schnakenberg for Juliana Force, the club s director. Kuniyoshi s enthusiasm for collecting American folk art was described by a newspaper reporter in 1924: I heard that most of the summer colony in Maine last year went mad on the subject of American primitives, and that Robert Laurent, Dot Varian, Adelaide Lawson, and the Kuniyoshis stripped all the cupboards bare of primitives in the Maine Antique shops. 19 Another report appeared some twenty years later describing the results of Kuniyoshi s collecting: His work has been greatly influenced by his study of early American furniture and dishware, with which his home in Woodstock, N.Y., is furnished. 20 A fellow artist recalled hearing about a collecting trip that [Bernard] Karfiol, Laurent, and Kuniyoshi took to a Quaker village. They claimed to have been gone for two or three days, spent approximately twenty-seven dollars between them, and had to hire a truck to bring back their early American treasures. 21 Two years after the Whitney Studio Club show, the émigré sculptor Elie Nadelman and his wife Vida founded their Museum of Folk Arts to show their vast collections from both Europe and America, including several decorated American rooms. The display emphasized American popular crafts, which were shown together with examples of their European sources. One American Corner displayed a patchwork quilt, a hooked rug, a doll, a child s rocking chair, and a cradle. Like Kuniyoshi, the Nadelmans collected toys and mixed American folk art with objects from other cultures, in their case European. In 1931, Kuniyoshi s dealer Edith Halpert expanded the Downtown Gallery to include rooms on the second floor that she called the American Folk Art Gallery. She emphasized the relationship between folk and modern art. 22 One reason behind the new enthusiasm for American folk art has been suggested by Wanda Corn. She has theorized that the conversation around folk art focused on its being ours rather than others. The appetite for an indigenous folk, while primitivizing and romanticizing, expressed a desire for an imagined blood relationship to a national past. 23 This was just the kind of relationship to American roots that Kuniyoshi perhaps hoped to forge for himself through his passion for collecting America s folk art. Judging from his work, he seems also to have realized at about the same time that he had a parallel bond to his native land through its folk art and folklore. It is thus that Kuniyoshi began to depict Japanese folk objects in his work. Kuniyoshi s concern with American and Japanese folk art coincides with the rise in Japan of a movement to recognize and preserve folk crafts, or Mingei, which were first promoted in the 1920s by Soetsu Yanagi ( ). 24 To Yanagi, Mingei meant recognizing the value of the purely Japanese world of ordinary household objects handmade by unknown craftsmen. By the time of Kuniyoshi s visit to Japan in 1931, Yanagi and his group had already held successful exhibitions of Mingei in prestigious stores in Tokyo and Kyoto. 25 In 1931, the Mingei-kai (Folk Craft Society) had launched its magazine, Kogei (Crafts). Mingei theory both used ideas of modernism from the West and 4 W. L. Breeze, Locomotive Briar Cliff. Collection unknown, photograph courtesy Sara Mazo Kuniyoshi. served as a means to construct a national cultural identity for Japan. 26 Kuniyoshi, like the Mingei proponents, absorbed Western ideas of modernism while also recalling Japanese traditions of his youth, and out of these influences he created his own hybrid identity. 27 To identify and understand the role of references to the folk culture of both his native and his adopted cultures, we must examine Kuniyoshi s art. His enthusiasm for American folk artifacts was a more complex response, and because of his bicultural status he often saw alternative meanings or made unexpected associations with American customs and cultural artifacts. Looking back at the rage for folk culture in the United States during the twenties, composer Aaron Copland reflected in 1932, The desire to be American was symptomatic of the period. 28 The growing interest in American folk culture during the 1920s is certainly related to a racial nativism, which emerged so strongly that it influenced congressional debates on immigration restriction in 1920 and Labor unrest and an increase in radical political activity also contributed to growing xenophobia. The rampant spread of the Ku Klux Klan, which helped to incite the growing intolerance, occurred precisely at the same time that Americans were trying to identify their own native culture. Kuniyoshi s desire to be American may have resulted from fear of persecution by those eager to combat the Yellow Peril, as Asian immigration was then called by growing numbers of Americans who feared being inundated from the East. In 1924, the year Kuniyoshi lent the two pieces of American folk art to the Whitney Studio Club, the United States implemented the Japanese Exclusion Act, which all but prohibited further immigration by people of Japanese descent. 29 The new laws also barred those Japanese already in the United States from becoming citizens and forbade them from purchasing property. Despite the new laws and although Katherine Schmidt had lost her United States citizenship when she married Kuniyoshi, the couple managed to build a summer house in Woodstock, New York, in They found in the rural town not only the opportunity to collect additional examples of American folk art but also a congenial community of artists. Some of them, for instance Peggy Bacon, Alexander Brook, and German immigrant Konrad Cramer, shared Kuniyoshi s love of folk art. 30 In his catalogue for Kuniyoshi s 1948 Whitney show, Lloyd Goodrich commented on Japanese Toy Tiger and Odd Objects and Weather Vane and Sofa of 1933: Image[s] of an animal, such as a Japanese toy tiger or a weathervane in the shape of a horse... [are] successors of the animals that had appeared in [Kuniyoshi s] early pictures, but now [they are] symbols instead of the actual creatures. These still-lifes always seemed more than an assemblage of inanimate objects; they contained an element of symbolism, a suggestion of something beyond the things themselves. Speaking of his still-lifes Kuniyoshi observes that one can paint any subject and give it wide implications. 31 Despite Kuniyoshi s broad hint, neither Goodrich nor anyone else has sufficiently taken into account the painter s various remarks about past memory and experience with regard to Japanese Toy Tiger and other still lifes. In 1940 Kuniyoshi described his early work as autobiographical, explaining that until his second trip to Europe in 1928 he had not tried painting directly from the object.... It was rather difficult to change my approach since up to then I had painted almost entirely from my imagination and my memories of the past [italics added]. 32 In another indication of the place of objects in his work, Kuniyoshi remarked in 1948 of his still-life pictures, I picked up all kinds of materials cigars and toys and weathervanes and the old sofa in Woodstock, where I was going then. I picked them for shapes, colors, textures but sometimes when they were all together they take on symbolism for me. 33 Nonetheless, Bruce Weber, in writing about Kuniyoshi s symbolic still lifes, has concluded that Japanese Toy Tiger and Odd Objects lacked symbolic content : Cigars appear, as does a cord and tassel. The toy papermâché tiger was one of a pair the artist purchased in Japan. Japanese Toy Tiger and Odd Objects was painted at the end of a five year period when Kuniyoshi was including exotic objects in some of his still lifes, before imbuing them with an overt symbolic content. 34 In notes he made in 1944 for a projected autobiography, Kuniyoshi 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. Let us say still life. Still life is out of mode right now, but you can use symbols to say 5 Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Fish Kite, The Fukutake Collection, Okayama, Japan. clearly how the sorrow or gladness is felt deeply in your heart. 35 Following up on Kuniyoshi s hint of 1940, we can explicate Japanese Toy Tiger and Odd Objects and see that in the picture Kuniyoshi referred to Japanese and American customs that marked the pride and joy that attended the birth of a son. The Kurashiki hariko, a traditional type, was originally intended to celebrate the birth of the maker s first son, in what must have been the year of the tiger in the traditional Japanese Zodiac or lunar calendar. Hugo Munsterberg, advised by Soetsu Yanagi, noted that in Japan the tiger is a symbol of strength associated with the annual Boys Day festival on May fifth. 36 Kuniyoshi was surely aware that the bond between father and son is traditionally connected in Japanese folklore with this object, for he reinforced the association in his painting by adding cigars, traditionally given out in America by the proud father on the occasion of the birth of a son. Kuniyoshi did not need to learn about Japanese attitudes favoring male children because he grew up in this milieu, and differences and similarities between Japanese and American customs associated with childbirth and gender seemed to have sparked his imagination. The American anthropologist Ruth Benedict discussed the Japanese attitude toward sons in her book The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture: Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Upstream, Denver Art Museum. 6 Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Oriental Presents, Collection Sara Mazo Kuniyoshi. Every Japanese man must have a son. He needs him to perpetuate the family line down the generations and to preserve the family honor and possessions. For traditional social reasons the father needs the son almost as much as the young son needs the father. The son will take his father s place in the on-going future and this is not felt as supplanting but as insuring the father. 37 In painting Japanese Toy Tiger and Odd Objects, Kuniyoshi seems to have been treating this theme. It was not a coincidence that he painted it soon after his ship departed from Japan and j
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