OKAYAMA, Japan — A trip to Japan was not on my agenda until one of my students asked me about Yasuo Kuniyoshi, an artist born in Japan in 1889.
The student, a doctoral candidate, had come from Japan to take a graduate course I teach, "Art in New York, 1900-1940," at the City University of New York. She was curious about Kuniyoshi, who was a prominent figure then. I knew about him as a friend of Edward Hopper, whose biography I wrote.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 8, 2001 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 6 Travel Desk 1 inches; 21 words Type of Material: Correction
Japan: In "Tracing the Shadow of an Artist" (Travel, April 1), the location of the Korakuen garden was incorrect. It is in the city of Okayama, Japan.
Both men were among the leading artists shown in "Paintings by Nineteen Living Americans," a 1929 exhibition at the newly founded Museum of Modern Art in New York. Critics at the time questioned whether a foreign-born artist like Kuniyoshi qualified as an exemplar of American art. To the art world, there was no question about it: He was as American as anyone making art in New York in the Jazz Age, then during the Depression and, yes, during World War II, for which he contributed anti-Japanese war propaganda. Yet his birth in Japan barred him from U.S. citizenship until 1952; he died in 1953 before completing the process.
I was familiar with Kuniyoshi's work. His paintings, drawings, prints and photographs are in 50 museum collections in the U.S. (including the Getty in Los Angeles and the Norton Simon in Pasadena). His art is strikingly original. The emotionally expressive compositions suggest that he intended to convey a complexity of meanings, from dreams and fantasies to anxiety and pain. Partly because of acquisitions by collectors in Japan, he's better known in his homeland than in his adopted home.
Kuniyoshi, the only son of a rickshaw driver, immigrated to America in 1906. A public high school teacher in Los Angeles encouraged the newly arrived 17-year-old to take art lessons. "I had always liked pictures, and so I thought it was a good idea," he wrote in a magazine article in 1940. He moved to New York in 1910 and became swept up in the creation of modernism in American art.
My student's quest piqued my interest: What kind of environment had Kuniyoshi left behind?
I decided I had to visit his birthplace in Okayama and the museum there that is dedicated to his work. Okayama is on the central Japanese island of Honshu, roughly halfway between Osaka and Hiroshima. It's popular with Japanese tourists as a jumping-off point for touring the folk art capital of the country, Kurashiki (pronounced cure-AHSH-key), a 15-minute local train ride away. Okayama is easy to reach from Tokyo or Kyoto because it's on the Shinkansen, or bullet train, line; the trip takes 90 minutes from Kyoto, four hours from Tokyo.
The city, which has a population of 500,000, is a political and economic center, modern and not especially distinguished looking. It's known for its mild climate-a good thing because my trip, with my husband, John Van Sickle, was in January.
Kurashiki is also known for Korakuen, a classic 17th century "stroll garden" considered one of the three finest public formal gardens in Japan. Its 28 acres, on an island in the Asahi River, contain rice paddies, tea bush arbors, ponds, streams and maple, cherry and apricot trees. January was not the best month for visiting Korakuen, but its design elements, if not its flora, were in enjoyable form.
Okayama castle, or U-jo ('Crow Castle"), looms over Korakuen. The original was built in 1597 and largely destroyed in World War II; its 1966 reconstruction houses relics of local history.
After a stroll through the garden, John and I crossed Tsurumi-bashi, a bridge into the old part of the city. It was a short walk to Kuniyoshi's birthplace at 9-14 Izushi-chi. (After crossing the bridge, turn down the first tiny street on the right; his is the fourth house on the left.) A sculptural monument to the artist stands next to the modest dwelling, still a private residence. The monument features a cow, referring both to Kuniyoshi's birth in the year of the cow on the lunar calendar and to his iconic depictions of cows. They were prominent in his first one-man show, in 1922. Later he recalled: "I wasn't trying to be funny, but everyone thought I was. I was painting cows and cows at the time because somehow I felt very near to the cow. ... I thought it decorative as well as ugly, and so I painted cows constantly until I was exhausted. Following that I turned to babies."
From there we continued to the Okayama Prefectural Museum of Art. This impressive contemporary building, designed by Shinichi Okada, houses local archeological finds along with swords by craftsmen and work by artists from Okayama Prefecture. The art ranges from traditional scroll paintings by the master Sesshu (1420-1506) to Kuniyoshi canvases painted in America.