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Yasuo Kuniyoshi

Yasuo Kuniyoshi (1893 or 1899---1953) [1] was born in Okayama, Japan and immigrated by himself to America at age 16 [2]. His wish to become an American citizen was never granted, though he lived here for almost 50 years, married twice, and produced art for the American cause in World War II. 

As with so many other artists that were from other countries before immigrating to America, he brought his own sensibility that he combined with other exploratory artistic trends. From this mixture, he created a distinctly recognizable style using flat areas combined with cubist and expressionist forms.

Kuniyoshi’s early art training occurred after his arrival on the West Coast at the Los Angeles School of Art and Design. He then joined so many other artists in New York where he studied at the National Academy, the Independent School, and then the Art Students League. Other students studying with him include Stuart Davis with whom he became lifelong friends, Edward Hopper and Alexander Calder [3]. In turn, he became an alumnus of the Art Students League, where he taught other budding artists.

In 1935, he received a Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship. The show Nineteen Living Americans at the Museum of Modern Art included Kuniyoshi, as well as the 1946 Advancing American Art show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and finally a Yasuo Kuniyoshi Retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1948. A year following his death, the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo, Japan, mounted the Kuniyoshi Memorial Exhibition in 1954. Further exhibits followed in Austin, Texas, Whitney, Philip Morris, in New York, the Amon Carter Museum in Ft. Worth, Texas, and the Zabriskie Gallery in New York [4].

Along with other luminaries like Georgia O’Keefe and Stuart Davis, Kuniyoshi was given a room to paint in Radio City Music Hall, quite a fabulous project [5].

A posthumous exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, The Artistic Journey of Yasuo Kuniyoshi in 2015 brought awareness of Kuniyoshi’s work to new audiences. Visitors were able to experience his paintings that focus on rural subjects, circus performers, still lifes, the nude, and the sad clowns in his final phase after World War II. His 1924 Self-Portrait as a Photographe[6] shows the confidence of youth. The late white faced clown paintings show us pathos and suffering, as in the Tired Clown of 1946 [7].  Stomach cancer claimed his life in 1953. 

[1] Many articles have 1893 as his date.  Others have 1889. For the former date of 1893, see For the latter see Philip Kennicott, “Kuniyoshi Remained True to America Despite His Shameful Treatment”, Washington Post, April 5, 2015, states that he immigrated in 1906 at age 16, which would put his birth at 1890. Also where his birth date is listed as 1889.  Also where it says, "Yasuo Kuniyoshi (1889-1953) was a Japanese-American painter, printmaker and photographer from New York, New York. Year of birth cited as 1889, 1890, or 1893."

[2] states that he came to America with his family in 1906 at age sixteen though his birthdate is listed as 1889.



[5] Wayne Craven, American Art History & Culture, (McGraw-Hill revised 1st edition, London, 2003), p. 420-421.

[6] p.4

[7] p.3

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