The Anxious Art Of Japanese Painter (And 'Enemy Alien') Yasuo Kuniyoshi After moving to the U.S. in 1906, Kuniyoshi became a prize-winning artist. But with World War II, things changed. "When he walked down the street," says one curator, "he looked like the enemy."
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The Anxious Art Of Japanese Painter (And 'Enemy Alien') Yasuo Kuniyoshi

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The Anxious Art Of Japanese Painter (And 'Enemy Alien') Yasuo Kuniyoshi

The Anxious Art Of Japanese Painter (And 'Enemy Alien') Yasuo Kuniyoshi

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A 20th-century artist who was declared both a major American modernist and an enemy alien is now having his day at the Smithsonian. NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg finds his work intriguing and sad.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: In 1906, 16-year-old Yasuo Kuniyoshi came here alone from Japan, made his name as a painter, showed at the Museum of Modern Art at age 40, longed for American citizenship but was denied it, was an enemy alien during World War II, died in 1953 and pretty much disappeared from public memory. But curator Tom Wolf says, don't overdo the hardships.

TOM WOLF: He was a fun-loving guy. He was a party animal. He had tons of friends. The other artists loved him. And he was so thrilled that he was able to become so successful. So it wasn't all suffering and tragedy.

STAMBERG: Kuniyoshi was successful in his lifetime, right up there with O'Keeffe and Hopper.

JOANN MOSER: He exhibited with these people. He won prizes.

STAMBERG: American Art Museum co-curator Joann Moser says, however, that after Pearl Harbor, things changed.

MOSER: When he walked down the street, he looked like the enemy.

STAMBERG: Anxieties as a Japanese-American show in his work. The colors are somber. The faces he paints - highly stylized, flat, folk art-ish - are often fearful. Babies and children are never cuddly. His "Boy Stealing Fruit," from 1923, stairs warily, a banana in one hand, the other reaching for more. What is that - a peach? Inside...

MOSER: It's a peach.

STAMBERG: Oh, it looks so good.

MOSER: It does. But, you know what I think it refers to? There's a very famous Japanese folk tale about a little boy and a peach. And so I think that is a reference to his Japanese childhood.

STAMBERG: The chubby child could be cute, but he's not. Neither is the baby on his mother's shoulders in another '20s canvas, "Child Frightened By Water." Even the later, bright fuchsia pictures from the 1950s have grim details, a reference to death on the Fourth of July, a scary face behind a colorful mask. It's easy to see biography in Kuniyoshi's work. The fun-loving party animal had lots to deal with. Anti-Asian prejudice went back a long way. In 1919, he married a Caucasian American.

MOSER: And at the time they got married, she lost her citizenship because he was marrying an Asian man.

STAMBERG: During the war, Kuniyoshi wasn't sent from New York to an internment camp like West Coast Japanese. But there were restrictions.

MOSER: His camera was taken away from him. His binoculars were taken away. His bank account was frozen.

STAMBERG: Kuniyoshi was devoted to America, deeply patriotic.

MOSER: So when the Department of Defense asked him to do some drawings for propaganda posters, he was eager to do that.

STAMBERG: He sketched a mother and child hanged from a tree as a Japanese soldier leaves the scene. In "Clean Up This Mess," a woman's hand discards a bag filled with Japanese symbols, a flag, a samurai sword. The posters never got made, but the anti-Japanese sentiment was clear. How difficult it must have been for Kuniyoshi, repudiating his roots, uneasily replanted in a beloved new land.

WOLF: Oh, I think he was very torn, and it was a terrible period in his life.

STAMBERG: The artistic journey of Yasuo Kuniyoshi at the American Art Museum through the end of this month is his first retrospective in more than 65 years. Abstract expressionism and newer movements nudged him off the art scene after he died in '53. Curator Joann Moser says this show is a reminder of Kuniyoshi's American experience.

MOSER: He was really one of the most highly respected and esteemed American artists. So within artist circles, he functioned very well. He had many friends. But outside the artist circles, he remained a Jap.

STAMBERG: Over the years, the Japanese have bought up Kuniyoshis. And he has become a popular artistic prophet in his native land. In Washington, I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

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