"Boy Stealing Fruit" by Yasuo Kuniyoshi, 1923
from the exhibition
The Artistic Journey of Yasuo Kuniyoshi
Smithsonian American Art Museum
A few months ago at a show in New York City, I was engaged by a conversation with my friend Tom Wolf, who is an artist and art historian teaching at Bard, and he told me about a book he had written and an exhibition that was about to open in Washington D.C. at the Smithsonian. I was staying in Baltimore for the BRIDGES conference this week ( which I will write about soon ) so I decided to drive down the pike to D.C. and catch "The Artistic Journey of Yasuo Kuniyoshi" - on view now through August 30, 2015. If you don't see this show at The Smithsonian this summer, I am afraid you are out of luck because it will not travel to a city near you.
'Fish Kite", 1950, by Yasuo Kuniyoshi
Yasuo Kuniyoshi is a early 20th century artist ( not to be confused with a Japanese printmaker by the same last name ) and you will see his artwork in bits and pieces spread over many museums ( including a wonderful little painting titled "Charade"that I found in Ithaca, at The Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art - see my Post from April 13, 2015 ).
A fair number of the works in the Smithsonian exhibition come from Japanese collections and while I have seen many of his paintings - I have never encountered a show of Kuniyoshi this extensive before.
I had the chance to really evaluate his talent - and it is significant - I would say his circus performers and fakirs are archetypes in their own right.
Yasuo Kuniyoshi's 1924 " Self Portrait as a Photographer "
oil on canvas
I walked into the Smithsonian to cool my heels, and dig into this exhibition, and the first painting that I saw was a self-portrait by the painter of himself as a photographer - how ironic! Kuniyoshi's eyes betray something happening ( off screen perhaps ). Is the artist saying that despite his passion for stylization - what he is giving you here is a document of how things really look like ( a kind of willful or wishful substitution ).
I am really familiar with his brand of graphic exaggeration, because my father who was also an artist practiced the same thing and may have even been heavily influenced by the art of Kuniyoshi at a time when he was a budding artist just out of college ( late 1930's ).
"Little Joe with Cow", 1923
"The Artistic Journey of Yasuo Kuniyoshi" also has a surprisingly large self portrait of the painter dressed up to play golf - not an image you associate with the bohemian life. We should know more about this artist who never really gave up on figurative art and go into pure abstraction, even when that became the prevailing trend ( I think of DeKooning in this and an artist like Diebenkorn ). In fact
Kuniyoshi doesn't go in for histrionics in his work, most of the canvases are modest in scale - and in fact his colors were subtle all the way until the 1950's when the palette brightened ( the end of the wars may have had something to do with this ).
" Maine Family", 1922-23
Where Kuniyoshi is more expressive - that is in the size relationships and contrasts - we get the sense that one of his strengths is in design - and that is a word that is not often associated with mid-20th century art. It is however, part of the Kuniyoshi legacy - he tells a short story in his art, his art has social significance, and we root for the artist as we root for the underdog. The artworld in the mid- 20th Century was beginning to be a very competitive marketplace.
"Strong Woman with Child ", 1925
by Yasuo Kuniyoshi
I congratulate my friend Tom Wolf for doing the work to put this show on the map. It has garnered a lot of attention and wonderful reviews!