Posts Tagged 'Yasuo Kuniyoshi'

Unnecessary Embarrassment: Yasuo Kuniyoshi’s Letters

Among the treasures in the DMA Archives are four letters exchanged in the summer of 1941 between artist Yasuo Kuniyoshi and the Director of the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, Richard Foster Howard. For more than 40 years, these letters were the only works by Kuniyoshi housed in the DMA. Since 1988, Museum visitors have become acquainted with him through Bather with Cigarette. This star of the American art collection is currently on view in My|gration in the Center for Creative Connections.

Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Bather with Cigarette, 1924, oil on canvas, Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas Art Association Purchase Fund, Deaccession Funds/City of Dallas (by exchange) in honor of Dr. Steven A. Nash, 1988.22, © Estate of Yasuo Kuniyoshi/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Displayed alongside works by artists and designers including Hans Hoffman, Peter Muller-Munk, and An-My Lê, Kuniyoshi’s painting represents one of the 14 immigration stories shared in the exhibition’s “Arrivals” section. The 1941 correspondence between the 51-year-old artist and the DMFA director sheds light on the challenges and discrimination Kuniyoshi experienced in the US.

Yasuo Kuniyoshi, from the Archives of American Art, photographed by Peter A. Juley & Son

Kuniyoshi arrived alone in Spokane, Washington, as a teenager in 1906. Although he initially planned to stay only a few years, by 1910 his artistic talents had led him to New York City. There he enrolled in a series of schools and entered the circle of leading figures in American art.

Bather with Cigarette was completed in 1924—the same year Congress effectively banned immigration from Asian countries. Kuniyoshi had already witnessed the government’s discriminatory policies. His marriage to fellow artist Katherine Schmidt in 1919 caused her to lose her citizenship. In 1922 the Supreme Court ruled that Japanese people were not the same as “free white persons” and thus did not have the same rights to naturalization. 

Fast forward to the summer of 1941. Headlines about naval attacks and international conflict fueled racism and xenophobia in the US. Kuniyoshi, like many American artists, wanted to travel the country in search of new inspiration. Unlike most of his peers, he could not embark on a trip without being hyper-aware that his appearance and national origins could be perceived as threatening. To mitigate the risk of police detention, he asked regional arts leaders to provide letters verifying his profession. The DMA Archives holds Kuniyoshi’s initial request to Howard (May 22, 1941), the director’s two-part response (here and here, May 26, 1941), and the artist’s thank you (mailed mid-journey from Colorado Springs, July 9, 1941).

Yasuo Kuniyoshi’s original letter to Richard Foster Howard.
Click HERE to expand.

In December 1941, Imperial Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and the US declared war. Kuniyoshi was not among the 120,000 people of Japanese heritage who were forcibly moved to internment camps in early 1942. He was, however, declared an “enemy alien.” Federal authorities impounded his bank account and confiscated his binoculars and camera as potential spy equipment. Despite this maltreatment, he spent the war years working for the federal government as a graphic artist and radio broadcaster (valued for his fluency in Japanese). Following WWII, Kuniyoshi became the first living artist to be honored with a retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1948. Although he had identified as an American and lived in the US for over 40 years, immigration laws prevented him from becoming an American citizen before his death in 1953.

Emily Schiller is the Head of Interpretation at the DMA.

Dear Director

Nowadays we dash off a quick email, send a text, and dread writing a thank you note, but handwritten letters were once the common means of correspondence—and not that long ago . . . though being an archivist my idea of concepts like “long ago,” “old,” and “recently” may be a little skewed.

Here are three letters from artists with works in the collection writing to former Dallas Museum of Fine Art and Dallas Museum for Contemporary Arts directors. They run the gamut from social commentary to the mundane. I think all of the letters are interesting, though, in how they are informal and hint at the personalities of the people behind the names on museum labels.

The first letter was written by artist Yasuo Kuniyoshi to DMFA director Richard Foster Howard on July 9, 1941.

Fine Arts Center, Colorado Springs
Dear Mr. Howard,
I should have written you long ago to thank you for your letter of identification ___ & haven’t had a chance to do so because I have been on move since I left N.Y. the beginning of June.
I am thoroughly enjoying the south-west, working hard, hoping to accomplish something before the summer is over. Here is dramatic scenery and a beautiful climate. I don’t know why more American artists don’t come here to work.
I want to thank you again for your generous letter – it made me feel good – – grateful – Best wishes for the summer.
Sincerely yours, Yasuo Kuniyoshi
July 9

The letter Kuniyoshi refers to is one he asked Mr. Howard to write identifying him as an American painter long in residence in the United States in case he should be questioned by police while sketching outdoors on his south-west tour. He had heard that other artists had been questioned as a result of the “war situation.”

The second letter was written by Thomas Hart Benton to DMFA director Jerry Bywaters on November 1, 1954.

Nov. 1 -54
Dear Jerry,
You may be wondering why I haven’t sent your picture back and, anticipating a possible query, I want to tell you why.
I came back here from Martha’s Vineyard with a commission on my hands which took me to Kentucky for material (three weeks) and which, with a deadline attached, has kept me busy since my return and which will continue to keep me busy for another three weeks or so.
Picture cleaning is tricky business – so give me time. I’ll do your picture up right and you’ll get it back soon enough.
Y— Tom

The picture Benton refers to is unknown.

Finally, here is a letter from Gerald Murphy to DMCA director Douglas MacAgy written on August 5, 1960.

5 : VIII : 60
Dear Donald MacAgy: –
It was good to hear from you. I feel sure that your European trip was successful.
I have heard nothing but the highest praise on all sides regarding the exhibition and the warmest commendation for you in particular for having devised it.
Hank Brennan, who is here, deplores so much that Life was caught napping concerning your exhibition!
Please do let me know when you are to be in NYC this Fall so that the deferred junket of this last Spring to Snedens may be recaptured.
Best wishes for continued success,
Sincerely, Gerald Murphy
PS. Thank you so much for having the clipping sent to me. How much more intelligent ‘art criticism’ is than in the past. I was amazed! GM

Murphy is referring to the DMCA exhibition American Genius in Review: I, May 11–June 19, 1960.

Hillary Bober is the Archivist at the Dallas Museum of Art.


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