Theses Doctoral

Art Across Borders: Japanese Artists in the United States, 1895-1955

Handel-Bajema, Ramona

From the 1880s to the early 1920s, hundreds of artists left Japan for the United States. The length of their stays varied from several months to several decades. Some had studied art in Tokyo, but others became interested in art after working in California. Some became successful in the American art world, some in the Japanese art world, and some in both. They used oil paints on canvas, sumi ink on silk, and Leica cameras. They created images of Buddhist deities, labor protests, farmers harvesting rice, cabaret dancers, and the K.K.K. They saw themselves and were seen by others as Japanese nationals, but whether what they created should be called Japanese art proved a difficult and personal question, The case of Japanese artists in the United States during the first half of the twentieth century demonstrates that there is a national art - a Japanese art and an American art - but that the category is not fixed. A painting can be classified in the 1910s as Japanese, but the same painting can be included in a show of American art a few decades later. An artist can proclaim himself to be American, but can then be exhibited as a Japanese artist after his death. National constructions of art and artists serve the art market's purpose of selling a work. Categories set along national lines also reinforce the state's projection of a distinct, homogeneous culture to the international community. For non-Western artists, assigning themselves with a national aesthetic allows for easy identification. But for modern Japanese artists like Kuniyoshi Yasuo, Ishigaki Eitarô, and Shimizu Toshi and others, national categories often posed barriers to creativity and to their success in the art world. Shimizu Toshi was awarded for painting a night scene of Yokohama, but his award was rescinded because he was Japanese. Savvy artists like Yoshida Hiroshi and Obata Chiura worked within national aesthetic categories to better market his work. Kuniyoshi Yasuo remained enigmatic, willing to fall into any category that a critic or dealer might determine they should be cast in, while Ishigaki Eitarô associated himself with international leftist politics that precluded notions of Japanese art. Exploring their histories brings several themes to the fore. First, any attempt to use a single, or hyphenated, national category to describe them or their art is problematic and misleading. An artist's "Japaneseness" was not a fixed characteristic: at different points in his career, he might be classified as a Japanese, American, or even a proletarian artist. Artists could sometimes choose to align themselves with one national culture or eschew both, but the denizens of the art world - critics, museum and gallery curators, schools, and other artists - as well as the public nearly always ascribed a national, or at best hybrid, aesthetic character to their work. During the 1910s and 1920s, when Japanese art had fallen out of fashion and modernism was the vanguard, Japanese artists were freer to transcend the preconceptions of what had become by then conventionally defined as a "Japanese aesthetic," which was based in good part on the works of Japanaiserie of earlier years. Artists of many nationalities strove to be "modern" by consciously rejecting "tradition," which for Japanese artists meant the styles and techniques of traditional Japanese painting. Many of the artists from Japan who wanted to make modern art had little practice in traditional art in any case, since they had received their artistic training in the United States. Indeed, it was their American mentors who taught them what Japanese art was supposed to look like. Modern art did not just set itself against the artistic conventions of the past; it also sought to comment on, and intervene in, the rapidly changing ways of modern life. Japanese artists in New York and Los Angeles joined their colleagues in turning to city streets and everyday life for their subjects, rather than reflecting on a safely imagined past. Portraying the streets they walked, in the techniques they learned in American art schools, came more naturally to them than making a woodblock print of a geisha strolling in a Kyoto garden. They used oils to paint flappers they saw on Fourteenth Street, but had no experience with woodblock printing, geisha, or the gardens of Kyoto.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
East Asian Languages and Cultures
Thesis Advisors
Gluck, Carol
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
August 17, 2012