Woman with Drink

Yasuo Kuniyoshi
1937
Boca Raton Museum of Art

A painter, photographer and printmaker, Kuniyoshi combined elements of his Japanese heritage with aspects of American Modernism to create distinctly individual works. The vantage points are at elevated, oblique angles and imagery rendered in sharply delineated lines filled in with flat planes of color. Paintings of women play an essential and defining role throughout his career. In the 1920s they are giddy and in the 1930s and 1940s they are isolated, introspective and melancholy. In the artist’s own words: “I like to paint women…But I don’t paint just one woman, I put in what I know and sense about all women. I paint [the] universal woman.” Given the approximate year of this work, the woman represents the misery of an impending war through her contemplative and distracted expression with lowered eyes, tilted head, and expressive posture. Her hunched over position recalls the renderings of melancholia throughout art history. She exudes an outward passivity as she absentmindedly holds a cigarette and a drink in each hand with a somber expression centered on the world’s political unrest, as opposed to a lost love or the departed companion that left the unfinished drink next to her.

Kuniyoshi’s poignant works leading up to and during the War were gloomy and pessimistic, because his precarious situation in the United States at this time. He emigrated from Japan to America in 1906 first to Washington state and then moving to Los Angeles and finally New York in 1910. After Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor, the US government classified Kuniyoshi as an enemy alien. He was placed under surveillance and his bank account was impounded. Only by helping the Office of War Information with propaganda art and broadcasting pro-democracy messages to the Japanese through shortwave radio did Kuniyoshi avoid the internment camps.

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Yasuo Kuniyoshi's Woman with Drink

Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Woman with Drink, about 1937, Tempera on paper. Acquired in 1989; Gift of the Dr. and Mrs. John J. Mayers Collection.