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A magical landscape

Kuniyoshi loved his adopted country, but was considered a potential enemy. See learning resources here.

Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Little Joe with Cow, 1923, oil on canvas, 71.1 x 106.7 cm (Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art), a Seeing America video Speakers: Dr. Jen Padgett, Associate Curator, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, and Dr. Beth Harris.
Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(upbeat piano music) - [Beth] We're in the storage room at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art looking at painting by Kuniyoshi, Little Joe with Cow. - [Jen] Kuniyoshi painted cows throughout his career, I think the count is around 60, but this by far the largest and perhaps most impressive of the set where you have the young boy, Little Joe in the center patting his cow very lovingly. - [Beth] It is very sweet, but there's also a feeling of something threatening little Joe too. - [Jen] You have such a strong central figure with the cow, but then the background is this abstract whimsical and confusing space where you wonder whether certain elements are plants or where the land recedes or comes near you. The way that Kuniyoshi plays with scale helps to add to that sense of unreality. You've got these giant seed pods next to these very delicate little grasses. - [Beth] One of my favorite parts is the house. We can't tell how far away that house if from little Joe, how long it would take him to get home if his mother called for him. And there's a little path that goes into nowhere. - [Jen] Kuniyoshi had a remarkable ability to create these dynamic spacial relationships. - [Beth] And the changes in scale, the ambiguity of the space, makes me feel like we're looking at a dream, or the vision of a child. - [Jen] Yes, it's that visionary quality that defines much of Kuniyoshi's work. He was influenced by European modernism and traveled to Paris. He loved American folk art, and then there's also inspiration from Japanese sources, especially ink drawings. It's through this combination of different things that Kuniyoshi does something that's distinctively his own. - [Beth] And there is that sense of childhood, of animals that anthropomorphized, of spaces that are bigger or smaller like "Alice in Wonderland". - [Jen] Kuniyoshi claimed a sense of identification with cows because he was born in what was the year of the cow according to the Japanese calendar. So, he saw it as sometimes a stand in for himself. - [Beth] Kuniyoshi came from Japan when he was just 16 years old, he asked his parents for permission to immigrate, he was looking to escape serving in the military and because he's of Japanese descent and he lives during the time of World War II, it's impossible not to talk about what happened after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. - [Jen] Because he was living in New York he was not sent to one of the internment camps where Japanese Americans were incarcerated, he was however, placed under house arrest briefly, questioned by government officials and elected to give up his cameras, radios and binoculars to avoid any suspicion that he was doing any surveillance on the part of the Japanese government. - [Beth] It's important to remember that anyone of Japanese descent and also people of German and Italian descent were considered potential enemies and immigrants from Japan, Italy and Germany were held at Ellis Island until they could have hearings. And so there was this widespread suspicion and he talked about walking down the street feeling like people were looking at him as a potential enemy. - [Jen] People of Japanese descent were not listed as resident aliens, they were now categorized as enemy aliens and that was deeply upsetting to Kuniyoshi who at that point had been in the U.S. For three and a half decades, had made up a life, had forged an artistic career, and saw himself as an American. - [Beth] In fact, right after the bombing of Pearl Harbor he said a few short days has changed my status in this country, although I myself have not changed at all. We could also talk about the fact that even though he lived here for decades, he never was able to become as U.S. citizen. - [Jen] There were discriminatory laws against immigrants from East Asia that were actually the first racially based immigration laws in the U.S. and it wasn't until the very end of his life that these laws began to change and in his last days he still had the hope and submitted an application to be considered for U.S. citizenship. That conflict between an artist who had such a distinct and individual style and creates a work that asks you to expand your imagination, who during his life was often faced with the really hard realities of discrimination and national ideas that could be very limiting. - [Beth] The kind of racialized thinking that was so prominent during World War II. (upbeat piano music)