Katamoto and Japanese Artists in New York in the Early 1930s

By Tsunemoto, Hiroshi | Thomas Wolfe Review, Annual 2007 | Go to article overview

Katamoto and Japanese Artists in New York in the Early 1930s


Tsunemoto, Hiroshi, Thomas Wolfe Review


One hundred years ago in Japan, study abroad was limited to an elite few who traveled on Japanese government scholarships or private funds. As to studying art overseas, almost all of the elite Japanese went to Paris to learn Western painting or sculpture. They stayed in Paris for several years and then returned to Japan, where they became Western-style painters or sculptors, or taught at colleges of art.

In those days, few Japanese thought of coming to New York to study art. Most of the Japanese immigrating to the United States were manual laborers. They wanted to make their fortune in the country where they believed "the American Dream" was not a fantasy but a reality. They hoped that, once they accumulated a fortune, they would return to Japan as rich men. Regrettably, however, their high hopes often turned into nightmares in California and other parts of the United States.

Yet some of the Japanese immigrants found that they had artistic talent and went to art schools in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, Boston, and New York. Between the two world wars, namely in the period of "the Lost Generation," at one time, in New York City alone, there were some one hundred Japanese who were artists or who were trying to become artists. Incidentally, in Of Time and the River, Thomas Wolfe writes about the multiracial city of New York: "The mongrel compost of a hundred races-the Jews, the Irish, the Italians ... as well as Chinese, Japs, and dapper little Filipinos--a hundred tongues, a thousand tribes ... the great web of America ..." (535-36).

In pre-World War II New York, the Gachoukai was a club or association of Japanese sculptors and painters. Among Japanese artists who lived in in the city while Wolfe was there, the most renowned were Gozo Kawamura, (1) Yasuo Kuniyoshi, (2) and Isamu Noguchi. (3) They were well known in New York in the 1930s when Wolfe wrote the story of Katamoto, (4) a "Microscopic Gentleman from Japan" (You Can't 28).

Gozo Kawamura was born in Nagano in 1884. He did not want to be drafted into the Japanese military, so he came to the United States in 1904. He finally settled down in New York in 1906 and began studying sculpture at the National Academy of Design, graduating in 1909. The next year, he went to Paris. There he met American sculptor Frederic William MacMonnies, who lived in a suburb of Paris at that time, and became his assistant. Kawamura entered the Ecole des Beaux Arts in 1912. In 1916 he left Paris and returned to New York. From then on, with MacMonnies, Kawamura worked on many public monuments. For instance, New York City commissioned MacMonnies to create statues for the Washington Square Arch. MacMonnies and Kawamura worked together on the project, and those statues have been part of the arch since 1918. Then, in 1922, they created Civic Virtue for the New York City Hall. In 1935 Kawamura and James E. Fraser created Justice for the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. Kawamura was only 5'2", yet he created these huge public monuments.

Meanwhile, in 1924, Wolfe accepted a teaching position at Washington Square College of New York University. Between 1924 and 1930, he lived near the university campus and Greenwich Village, where he would probably have seen and met Japanese artists staying in and around the Village. Presumably, Wolfe knew of Gozo Kawamura from seeing the public monuments at Washington Square and at City Hall. Or Aline Bernstein, Wolfe's Jewish mistress, may have told him about the Japanese sculptor. In those days, many Jews in New York were kind to young artists, so it is likely that young Japanese artists in the city were assisted in one way or another by Jewish people. For instance, Yasuo Kuniyoshi was married to Catharine Schmitt, a Jewish woman who helped him become a major American painter and a true American artist.

Yasuo Kuniyoshi was born in Okayama in 1889. He came to America in 1906 as a manual laborer with no art training at home and with no intention of becoming a painter.

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