"A few short days has changed my status in this country, although I myself have not changed at all."
On December 8, 1941, artist Yasuo Kuniyoshi (1889-1953) awoke to find himself branded an "enemy alien" by the U.S. government in the aftermath of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. The historical crisis forced Kuniyoshi, an émigré Japanese with a distinguished career in American art, to rethink his pictorial strategies and to confront questions of loyalty, assimilation, national and racial identity that he had carefully avoided in his prewar art. As an immigrant who had proclaimed himself to be as "American as the next fellow," the realization of his now fractured and precarious status catalyzed the development of an emphatic and conscious identity construct that would underlie Kuniyoshi’s art and public image for the remainder of his life.
Drawing on previously unexamined primary sources, Becoming American? is the first scholarly book in over two decades to offer an in-depth and critical analysis of Yasuo Kuniyoshi’s pivotal works, including his "anti-Japan" posters and radio broadcasts for U.S. propaganda, and his coded and increasingly enigmatic paintings, within their historical contexts. Through the prism of an identity crisis, the book examines Kuniyoshi’s imagery and writings as vital means for him to engage, albeit often reluctantly and ambivalently, in discussions about American democracy and ideals at a time when racial and national origins were grounds for mass incarceration and discrimination. It is also among the first scholarly studies to investigate the activities of Americans of Japanese descent outside the internment camps and the intense pressures with which they had to deal in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor.
As an art historical book, Becoming American? foregrounds broader historical debates of what constituted American art, a central preoccupation of Kuniyoshi’s artistic milieu. It illuminates the complicating factors of race, diasporas, and ideology in the construction of an American cultural identity. Timely and provocative, the book historicizes and elucidates the ways in which "minority" artists have been, and continue to be, both championed and marginalized for their cultural and ethnic "difference" within the twentieth-century American art canon.
"Wang pushes his readers to explore how Kuniyoshi’s artistic
reputation shaped, and was shaped by, assumptions about what
it meant to be an American artist in the mid-twentieth
century. . . . [His] investment in exploring the ambiguity,
tension, and complexity of Kuniyoshi’s status as an
assimilated Japanese American artist enables this book to mark
an important new direction in the scholarship on Kuniyoshi. It
stands as an essential cornerstone of what [is hoped] to be a
renewed scholarly interest in exploring the varied facets of
the painter’s work and reputation before, during, and after
World War II. Kuniyoshi, after all, was one of the most
celebrated and important American artists of the first part of
the twentieth century in New York, although today’s histories
of twentieth-century American painting mention him as only a
minor figure. The historical record, as Wang helps us see,
contradicts such assumptions." —Art Journal (72:3, Fall
Author: Wang, ShiPu;ShiPu Wang
is an art historian and assistant professor at the University of California, Merced. His areas of expertise are twentieth-century art and visual culture in the global contexts, with specializations in modernisms and historical discourses on race, nationalism, and diasporas in American art. He is the recipient of the 2008 Patricia and Phillip Frost Essay Award, given by the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which recognizes the most distinguished contribution to the Museum’s journal, American Art.
Read the introduction
Prelude Surviving Pearl Harbor
1. Painting American
2. Negotiating “Japaneseness”
3. Picturing an Identity Crisis
4. Fighting the Battles Within
5. Wearing the Masks
Epilogue Becoming American?