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The Story Behind Yasuo Kuniyoshi

The artistic outlook of Yasuo Kuniyoshi reminds bicultural symbiosis of the Westernism and Orientalism even though they are conceptually contradictive philosophies. His paintings clearly demonstrate the maintenance of Japanese folklore motives from one side, and French modernistic trends and American freedom from the other one. This tremendous consistency of exotic outlooks makes Kuniyoshi’s art interesting to the gourmets of art who used to explore how ethnic and local surroundings affect an artist. The paper provides the analysis of the artistic heritage of Yasuo Kuniyoshi and the personal opinion on how his potential as a multicultural and multinational painter could be used.

At first, it is important to admit that Kuniyoshi preferred still-life style, since he dedicated much attention to objects from daily life, female circus, and nudity. These topics were changing along with his carrier so late Kuniyoshi sometimes abandons traditional manners he maintained at the beginning. To empower this impression of biculturalism, the painter uses ink and rice paper (or silk). Simultaneously, he experiments with bold colors in oil. In terms of depicted Japanese motives, the canvas called Little Joe with Cow clearly shows author’s oriental memory and imagination. Here, Kuniyoshi adds sharp angels that look quite unnatural in opposition to Western preferences where artists depict objects in more realistic forms.

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Kuniyoshi frequently applies to the marine theme with the vast variety of depicted fish and water. Such approach depicts harmony between symbiosis of the painter’s own aesthetical outlook and Asian traditional vision. Notably, the canvas frequently has very different proportions and backgrounds, which is hardly to name as series of paintings. Kuniyoshi’s failed attempts to find a single bank reflected in his bias to depict water. Possibly, this is one of the reasons why his marine images have better quality and are more interesting to experts than his paintings depicting faces. Thus, Kuniyoshi’s faces have no significant meaning because they do not express anything; his play with lights and emotions is not enough to attract.

Kuniyoshi’s circus canvases are quite frequent and successful comparing to other themes. For example, his painting Strong Woman and a Child is striking by color. I see Paris manners of the painter, which positively reflects on my feeling about the canvas. I approve his depiction of the French flag on the background made in impressive and conceptually interpreted tones, which are grey, white and brown instead of red, white and blue.

In terms of emotions left after Kuniyoshi’s paintings, it is hard to ascribe him to defined style or select single manner of painting, so that is why his paintings does not frequently affect me. This subject of loss and inability to find himself makes him neither orientalist, nor westerner. Consequently, I agree with Dr. Tom Wolf who assessed Kuniyoshi’s paintings and stated that “He could never actually become a citizen” (n. p.). For instance, after the artist visited Europe in early 1930s, his style has transformed from majorly Oriental to Western one with the domination of depicting objects from life. Considering my knowledge about close friendship between Kuniyoshi and Jules Pascin, I suppose that it affected the artist, who became more oriented on French modernity. Comparing to earlier works, Kuniyoshi’s French style is obvious in terms of female motives: women are erotic and sensual. In such way, the author emphasized the emotions caused by nudity.

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For example, The Daily News canvas, which is similar to Little Joe with Cow, has quite sharp lines as for typically soft Kuniyoshi. The emotion is quite cold, the modesty is almost absent on faces of a woman sitting on a chair. His inability to identify own belonging developed his idea of fear that slowly develops into depression. Therefore, there is a common sense in Bruce Dorfman’s statement: “Kuniyoshi was always concerned about everything consisting with layers of meaning” (n. p.). Particularly, it reminds me his attitudes to pilgrimage reflected in his bicultural symbolism that absorbed much Japanese philosophy of the Mingei movement. Along with that, Kuniyoshi demonstrated fanatical passion for the American folklore that along with the Japanese traditionalism assigns symbiosis of two cultures. For example, in his work Fish Kite, the painter depicts the American Independence Day by the background calendar page of 04 July. The carp on the Kuniyoshi’s canvas is swimming in upstream direction symbolically since in old Japanese there is the belief of parents’ hope about strong health of their children.

Another example of intercultural contradictions is Japanese Toy Tiger and Odd Objects where a zodiac tiger becomes a Japanese symbol of strength and has relation to the old tradition of celebrating the annual boy’s holiday. The image of a cigar is also related to the celebration of birth of the son in the family. In American tradition, when a father gives cigars to his friends as a present, it means that his wife gave birth to the boy. To my personal consideration, Yasuo Kuniyoshi is an interesting artist, but it is hard to find iniquity in his works even though they represent symbiosis of the two polar worlds.

At first, I did not appreciate his attempts of making sensation in art by compiling American and French symbols and images and depicting them in Japanese tones, lines and proportions. My personal impression became more positive when I saw  Kuniyoshi’s circus theme like on the canvas Strong Woman and a Child. Definitely, if I were on Yasuo Kuniyoshi’s place, my paintings would also absorb Western art in the same measure in which it would affect me. However, I would try to emphasize own national roots with the Japanese traditionalism instead of putting everywhere Western motives.

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Having the same talent, skills and manner of painting, I would try to create for myself instead of creating relying on opinion of others and trying to be remarkable in the West. Especially, it could be actual referencing on affect the Japanese and other cultures could easily make on the West. Indeed, the “Japanese art was not alone among non-Western traditions in leaving a mark on Western design”, but analyzing the success of heritage, “its effects were by far the deepest” (Sigur 9). The reason is that the habit to follow other cultures instead of maintaining own made critics less tolerant to Kuniyoshi, since he was trying (was eager to try) to disengage himself from reality even though his symbolical interpretation is quite fascinating. In addition, I would add some emotions and life to people I depict: Kuniyoshi made them breathless and cold, granted with chimeric proportions. Thus, comparing with this aspect, the marine images are more successful, which is strange relying on the fact that the artist did not associate himself as clear sea painter. Simultaneously, I would depict places of trips and combine that with the Japanese signs meaning that wherever I am I always remember where I belong.

Hence, in his art, Yasuo Kuniyoshi gives an example of compilation of the Western and Asian cultures and traditions. He is more outstanding in depicting objects around than people since they look unalive and with chimera forms. The footprint of his trips, especially to France, is depicted in numerous canvases that assign artist’s attempts to find and identify himself rather as Westerner. Even though this quality made him particularly lost, Kuniyoshi’s ability to operate symbols is precious. If I had opportunity to experience his life and talents, my artistic heritage would be less oriented on following the Western style and more concentrated on primary origin. In this case, Kuniyoshi would be more successful as an artist and define auditory of artistic gourmets valuing Asian artistic subtlety.