In the era or World War II and before, there was no one more recognized and awarded in the American fine art community than Issei artist Yasuo Kuniyoshi (1889-1953). He stood apart. Yet today, he is all but forgotten because he did stand apart. Protected by the liberal art community and powerful friends in high places, he was saved from the WWII incarceration camps that imprisoned 110,000 persons of Japanese descent. But Kuniyoshi’s connections and his efforts to express patriotism could not save him or his legacy from the tidal forces of war. Sifting through the artist’s wartime propaganda posters, personal paintings, and wartime speeches, scholar ShiPu Wang in Becoming American? reconstructs the complex conflicts and forces raging around and within Kuniyoshi, ultimately raising the question of identity and what it is to be American.
Yasuo Kuniyoshi’s list of awards and expositions are impressive. Prior to the outbreak of war, he was recognized by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, the Guggenheim, and the Carnegie Institute to name only a few. With Pearl Harbor, his world, his art, and his life would be forever changed, even though his outward living conditions did not change. Spared from the incarceration camps, he threw himself into patriotic causes with colleagues and made radio speeches and produced propaganda war posters for the government. But this decision to aid the war effort in this way would throw him in multiple conflicts, both outside and within.
The striking reality was that he was officially an “enemy alien.” Barred from becoming naturalized American citizens, all Japanese people in America had their status changed from “resident aliens” to “enemy aliens,” the day after the Pearl Harbor attack. No matter how fervent Kuniyoshi’s patriotism and how powerful his personal allies, he could not escape his official status, his Japanese face, name, or place of birth.
Being aligned with other liberal fine artists, Kuniyoshi found himself in a hornet’s nest of warring factions in America. Commercial and illustrative art, often supported by government agencies, were in conflict with fine art sensibilities. Liberals fought conservatives who wanted to abolish support for publically funded art. His artist colleagues were in conflict with Roosevelt policies that wanted to limit criticism of Nazi-controlled Vichy France. Definition of patriotic “American Art,” exemplified by Norman Rockwell, was narrowly defined. Government agencies’ wishes for racist imagery of Japanese soldiers had to be reconciled with Kuniyoshi’s images of self.
Wang argues that these conflicts deeply disturbed Kuniyoshi, and he, like artists before and after, turned his emotional turmoil into art. Through analyses of his art, the author shows us a portrait of a conflicted individual whose identity was challenged in the charged times of WWII, a war which was not only about government ideologies, but in its subtext, also about culture, countries, and race.
Confronting issues of identity of an artist is hardly ever easy, and in Kuniyoshi’s case it is even more difficult because of tangled complexities and because the artist did not speak of them directly. Decoding Kuniyoshi’s paintings is similarly difficult. The complexity of the subject is part of the reward of the book, but it is also its challenge. Despite the difficulties, Wang does a credible job of peeling back the layers of meaning and symbolism of Kuniyoshi’s works, albeit slowly paced and deliberate.
In addition, the lack of color reproductions of example paintings makes the understanding difficult. The dust jacket’s painting, “Somebody Tore my Poster,” is thankfully reproduced in color, but as the only color image, it merely highlights the deficiencies in the book’s black and white reproductions, and entices the reader’s appetite for more color.
Despite his fervent patriotism and his success in the upper echelon of the art world, Kuniyoshi has been largely forgotten. Even a retrospective of his work at the Whitney Museum in 1948, the first ever one-artist show, could not preserve his legacy. In an ultimate irony, in light of his utter denunciation of wartime Japan, Japanese collectors and museums have acquired much of his output, many from notable American museum collections. Becoming American? serves to keep alive a small memory of an Issei Japanese artist who was a casualty of a world and an individual at war.