‘Witness to Wartime’ documents the life of a Japanese-born American painter, including his incarceration during World War II
The individual drive to make visual art and do creative research is born out of a person’s deep desire to express themselves and share important ideas. Art is really something “in” a person who needs to find a way out into the world. How this desire arises is unique to the human condition, and history has shown us that no matter what conditions a person or group of people find themselves in, the power of artistic expression finds a way to materialize.
“Witness to War: The Painted Diary of Takuichi Fujii” is an exhibition of the work of a Japanese-born modernist painter who documented his life in America after immigrating at the age of 15. This exhibition presents 82 objects (oil paintings, watercolors, ink drawings, books, sculpture). It documents many aspects of the artist’s life, but most notably his experience of being forced into an incarceration camp during World War II.
Fujii was 50 when war broke out between the United States and Japan. He was among more than 100,000 people of Japanese descent on the West Coast forced to leave their homes and live in geographically isolated incarceration camps.
He and his family, along with most of Seattle’s ethnic Japanese, were first sent to Puyallup Temporary Detention Camp on the Washington State Fairgrounds, and in August 1942 were transferred to the center Minidoka War Resettlement in southern Idaho.
Fujii documented the experience by beginning a visual diary that spans the years from his forced expulsion in May 1942 to the closing of Minidoka in October 1945.
Certainly, what first stands out when viewing the work is the talent of the artist and the interesting details of everyday life that he has captured. Fujii often pictured himself drawing or painting what he witnessed. This act is not limited to being included in the form of a portrait; rather, it shows the artist as an active participant in the documentation as well as the everyday life of the world he saw during his forced incarceration.
“Train to Minidoka” is a watercolor on paper that depicts the conditions and people who travel to where they would be incarcerated for three years. Dark lines outline the people traveling on the train. The artist shared this in his diary of the event: “A hot, very hot day in August. The inside of the bus was so hot that we were all running around naked. Anxious, we took the train, east, still east. Part of the passengers’ anxiety was due to the fact that they had very little information about their destination, and many thought they were going to be killed, a reality that Fujii details in his diary.
“Minidoka, Blocks 19 and 21” is a watercolor on paper that features a mountain scene with rows of dwellings in the foreground. Despite the formal documentation of this piece, it also retains the expressiveness of the artist’s hand in the variety of brushstrokes and marks.
What stands out the more one looks at the paintings is Fujii’s clear vision to underline his joy of making. His ability to express his own artistic passions and interests is also evident, while giving us a truly unique insight into his personal experiences.
“Minidoka, montage with fence and markers” is also a watercolor on paper, an expressive visual collage of what the camp looked like. In this piece, he chose more than a figurative route, creating a composition closer to what German Expressionists like Max Beckmann were doing before World War II.
In this painting, you can definitely capture Fujii’s emotions by the way the different compositional elements come together. Buildings, electrical wire, and barbed wire all tilt in relation to each other in a way that forces your eye to move across the surface of the image. The artist stays true to himself here, however, creating thoughtful lines and shapes, not ones that feel uniquely spontaneous or expressive, despite the “abstract” way the visual elements are put together.
There is a sadness that shines through in these works. This is important to note and understand. Fujii’s vision offers us a window and a way to connect with this period of our history more effectively than any photograph ever could. Yet there is also a joy expressed here. A pleasure to do and a pleasure to document the daily life of a situation that is certainly almost impossible to live with.
Anderson Turner is Director of Collections and Galleries at Kent State University School of Art. Contact him at [email protected]
Exposure: “Witness to War: The Painted Diary of Takuichi Fujii”
Place: Canton Museum of Art, 1001 Market Ave N., Guangzhou
Appointment: Until July 24
Hours: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday; closed on Mondays.
More information: 330-453-7666 or cantonart.org