Henry Sugimoto


Name Henry Sugimoto
Born March 12 1900
Died May 8 1990
Birth Location Wakayama, Japan
Generational Identifier

Issei

Henry Sugimoto (1900–90), a Japanese-born artist who studied in Los Angeles and in France, achieved largely posthumous fame for his paintings documenting the official wartime confinement of Japanese Americans by the U.S. government.

Early Artistic Career

Henry Sugimoto was born in Wakayama, Japan, on March 12, 1900. His father left for the United States shortly after he was born, and his mother joined him some years later, with the result that the young Henry was raised largely by his grandparents. Following the end of World War I, Henry Sugimoto arrived in the United States as a "yobiyose" (child brought over) and settled with his parents in Hanford, California. After attending Hanford High School, he enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley. He soon grew absorbed in art and his parents agreed to let him enroll at the California School of Arts and Crafts. After studying there for four years with a concentration in oil painting, he graduated with honors in 1928. He then moved to the California School for Fine Arts, but after a year there he decided to travel to France, the international artistic capital, for further study. Once arrived in Paris, Sugimoto became close to the circle of Japanese artists there. While he initially took up study at the Académie Colarossi in Paris, after a painting of his was rejected for inclusion by the prestigious Salon d'Automne he quit the Académie and took up residence in the French countryside. One of his landscape paintings was accepted for the 1931 Salon d'Automne.

Sugimoto returned to California in 1932 with a vastly increased reputation. He was granted a solo exhibition at San Francisco's Legion of Honor Museum in 1933. His French paintings, colorful and sensual canvases heavily influenced by Cezanne and French post-Impressionists, received such favorable notices that the show was expanded in size and its run extended. Over the years that followed, Sugimoto continued to paint and to exhibit his works in group shows in San Francisco. After two years living in the Bay Area, he married Susie Tagawa in 1934 and moved back to Hanford, where he worked as a laundry worker and part-time art teacher. During these years, he made several trips to Yosemite National Park, which inspired large-size landscapes. In 1939 he spent a month in Mexico, where he was decisively influenced by the social realist art of famed muralist Diego Rivera.

World War II Incarceration

Following the issuing of Executive Order 9066, the Sugimoto family was rounded up in Spring 1942 by the army and confined in Pinedale Assembly Center. They were then sent on to the Jerome camp in Arkansas, moving to the Rohwer camp in June 1944 when Jerome closed its doors. Sugimoto was shocked by the government's treatment. Believing it was his mission as an artist to document and protest his experience, Sugimoto began painting scenes of daily life. Because traditional art materials were hard to acquire, he painted on sheets, pillowcases, and canvas mattress covers. At first, fearing confiscation of his works by the authorities, Sugimoto concealed his paintings. However, he was encouraged by camp administrators, who even used him in a pro-WRA propaganda film. He thereafter began painting openly, and was hired to teach painting classes at Jerome High School. Eventually, Sugimoto compiled approximately 100 oil paintings, watercolors, and sketches. The paintings refer in pointed fashion to the injustice and irony of locking up loyal Americans. For example, the mural "Protecting our Flag" depicts a troupe of Nisei Boy Scouts guarding an American flag from seizure by a mob enraged by the shooting of an inmate. "Nisei Babies in Concentration Camp" portrays a room full of infants surrounded by barbed wire and armed guard patrols. Sugimoto also heavily dramatized the inmates' patriotism, most notably through scenes of Nisei soldiers leaving camp. In February 1944, once more with the approval of WRA authorities, he organized a show of his camp paintings at nearby Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas.

In 1945, Sugimoto was able to leave camp. He was near penniless. The mass of 100 prewar paintings that he had stored in San Francisco had been sold at auction during the war, and he was unable to recover the proceeds. He relocated to New York City, whose artistic climate he had always admired. There, in addition to painting, he was employed part-time as a textile designer. He also worked as a book artist. In 1949, he produced the illustrations for Songs From the Land of Dawn, by the Japanese Christian reformer Toyohiko Kagawa. Two years later, he provided the artwork for New Friends for Susan, a children's book by Nisei writer Yoshiko Uchida about a Japanese American girl. He continued to show his work in various venues. In 1960, he took part in a show of the Society of Washington Printmakers at the Smithsonian Institution. In mid-1962, a set of Sugimoto's paintings was exhibited at the Galerie Internationale in New York, his first solo show in nearly two decades. Unfortunately a newspaper strike broke out as it opened, and the show failed to attract significant publicity or sales. Another show three years later at the same gallery, even with newspapers in operation, did not do noticeably better. Sugimoto held a further show of new works at the Wiener Gallery in New York in May 1974.

Rediscovery

By that time, Sugimoto and his wartime camp work had begun to be rediscovered, as the field of Asian American Studies dawned and Japanese Americans and their allies began organizing commemorations of their wartime confinement. In 1972, Sugimoto's work was prominently included in Months of Waiting, 1942-1945, a show of art from the camps organized by the California Historical Society and held at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion of the Los Angeles Music Center. His camp murals "Mess Hall" and "Protecting our Flag," which formed the exhibition's centerpiece, were reproduced in The Los Angeles Times.[1] In the aftermath of the exhibition, Sugimoto began to revisit his camp art, and he produced new woodblock prints on camp themes. Meanwhile, he became involved in the growing Japanese American Redress movement. In 1981, he testified about his experience at Jerome before the U.S. Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. Sugimoto was profiled and his paintings included in the camp art anthology Beyond Words, and the 1989 show From Bleakness, at the Gallery at Hastings-on-Hudson.[2] His work was also featured in the camp art show The View From Within (1992), which opened following his death on May 8, 1990.

Meanwhile, Sugimoto was also rediscovered by art historians in his native Japan. In 1980, a Japanese exhibition of sixty years of his work was mounted under the sponsorship of the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper.[3] A year later, he published in Japan a folio of his camp artworks, Hokubei Nihonjin no shuyojo: kiroku kaiga (Sugimoto's self-published English version appeared in 1983 as North American Japanese People in Relocation Camps). He also contributed illustrations for Tetsuro Shimojima's children's book Sumire no senso (1985).

The ongoing rediscovery and celebration of Sugimoto's oeuvre climaxed in 2000 with a major exhibition of his works at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, where his personal art collection had been donated by his family. Due in part to positive reviews by the Los Angeles Times and New York Times, the exhibition was a smash hit and was extended due to its popularity. In connection with the exhibition, a documentary, Harsh Canvas, and a book, Henry Sugimoto: Painting an American Experience, both appeared.[4] Sugimoto's art has entered the collections of the Smithsonian Institution, and his creations have been featured on covers of numerous books about wartime Japanese Americans.

Authored by Greg Robinson, Université du Québec À Montréal

For More Information

Deborah Gesensway and Mindy Rosenman, eds. Beyond Words: Images from America's Concentration Camps. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1987.

Harsh Canvas: The Art and Life of Henry Sugimoto. Video. Directed by John Esaki for the Japanese American National Museum Media Arts Center. 30 min. 2001.

Karin Higa, ed. The View From Within : Japanese American Art from the Internment Camps, 1942-1945. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1992.

Kristine Kim, ed. Henry Sugimoto: Painting an American Experience. Berkeley: Heyday Books, 2000.

Footnotes

  1. Curiously, one critic referred to the "sensitized coloring-book manner" of Sugimoto's paintings, ignoring Sugimoto's draftsmanship and coloristic skill. However, the critic added perceptively that Sugimoto's works displayed the bitterness that other artists were at pains to conceal in their art. William Wilson, "The Nisei Camps Revisited," Los Angeles Times, July 10, 1972, F2.
  2. Deborah Gesensway and Mindy Rosenman, eds., Beyond Words: Images from America's Concentration Camps (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1987).
  3. See Zaibei gagyo 60-nen Henri Sugimoto ten (Tokyo: Yomiuri Shumbunsha, 1980).
  4. Robert A. Nakamura, Harsh Canvas: The Art and Life of Henry Sugimoto, film, Japanese American National Museum, 2001; Kristine Kim, ed., Henry Sugimoto: Painting an American Experience (Berkeley: Heyday Books, 2000).