The Hiroshima Panels Exhibition 2015

Produced by Yoshiko Hayakawa (Free Producer)
Curated by Yukinori Okamura (Curator of Maruki Gallery for The Hiroshima Panels)

●New York City : Pioneer Works (November 13 - December 20)


November 23, 2015 FINANCIAL TIMES "history is given a moral weight"

November 30, 2015 HYPERALLERGIC "The Historic Painted Panels That Exposed the Hell of Hiroshima"

December 15, 2015 HYPERALLERGIC "Best of 2015: Our Top 10 Brooklyn Art Shows"


●Boston : Boston University Art Gallery (September 11 - October 18)
October 6, 2015 BOSTON GLOBE "Currents, currency, and panic in two new exhibitions"

October 6,2015 BU Today "Stone Gallery Exhibition Recalls the Horrors of Hiroshima"


●Washington D.C. : American University Museum (June 13 - Augest 16)
June 13, 2015 Associated Press "Japanese art on atomic bombings on exhibit in Washington"

June 23, 2015 Washington Post "Paintings bring Japan’s hellish aftermath into vivid focus"


●Three unique aspects of the Hiroshima Panels
  ― Presentation by Yukinori Okamura, September 10 at Boston University and November 18 at Pioneer works

The atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, killed or wounded more than 100,000 people.
Following the bombing, the symbol of the mushroom cloud was the most common image of Hiroshima in the West.
In Japan, for several years, there were very, very few images of what actually happened on the ground.

Japan surrendered and was occupied.
When the occupation began, reporting on the damage done by the bombs was forbidden.
It was also forbidden to distribute any photos of the survivors.

Iri and Toshi Maruki witnessed the devastation of the bomb first hand.
In 1948 they decided to collaborate on a set of panels showing the effects of the bomb on the people of Hiroshima.

The first of the Hiroshima Panels was created during the occupation. 
The Hiroshima Panels consist of 15 separate panels of which 6 have been brought to this exhibition.

During the early 1950s, the Hiroshima Panels were displayed in about 200 places within Japan.
Later they were shown in travelling exhibitions in 25 countries in Asia, Europe, Africa, Australia, and America.

The mushroom cloud was a simple and abstract image of the bomb.
The panels showed close up the horror of the effects on a civilian population.
The panels helped people understand the tragedy of war and contributed to efforts to establish a more peaceful world order.

The panels are historically important.
But today I want to focus on the artistic characteristics of the panels.

I want to bring your attention to three unique aspects of the panels.
First, they were a collaboration between two very different artists.
Second, they show a fusion of Eastern and Western styles of art which were unusual at the time.
Third, they represent what the Maruki’s learned from interviewing survivors.
Some of the panels are historically controversial.
I will tell you their feelings about the folklore of the Hiroshima bombing and the truth of art.

During the war many artists collaborated on propaganda.
After the war there were continuing collaborations on works supporting the labor movement.
So, collaboration was not unusual.

But the Maruki’s were very different artists with different training and points of view.
It is still difficult for me to understand how such strong individuals could collaborate.

Iri Maruki used brush and ink on paper, the traditional materials of Japanese art.
But, he was interested in Western Avant Garde art.
He was interested in surrealism.

Iri created abstract paintings often depicting water and clouds.
They were experimental, something no one had tried before in Japan.

Toshi Maruki, had studied oil painting at a women’s art school.
She traveled alone through Micronesia, following in the footsteps of Gauguin.
Toshi was a good observer, skilled at figure painting.
She had a unique style of strong, free lines.

All their skills and interests seemed to be the opposite.
Eastern versus Western art forms. Avant Garde versus traditional.
Abstract landscape versus figure painting. Japanese ink painting versus oil painting.

They ended up painting on paper.
Toshi used ink and water colors instead of oil paint.
Her lines capture the confusion and shock of the victims.
Some people say the bodies remind them of Michelangelo’s paintings.
Iri used Japanese ink.

Iri sometimes found Toshi’s sharp lines too expository, and so, … he poured ink over the figures.
He wanted to soften the lines.

Iri once said, “Paintings do not always need to be drawn. There is nothing wrong with letting ink flow across them.”

The Japanese ink Iri used was very watery, so it spread far across the paper.
He believed that the unpredictable, nature of this style was part of its artistic value.

Iri sometimes applied ink in a way he called “Decalcomania,” which he said he learned from the Western surrealists.
This does not seem to be what you call decalcomania in the West.
This was in 1950. Art critics called it “Action Painting.”
Maybe Iri was one of the first action painters.

Iri’s use of ink turned the canvas black.
At first, Toshi was upset by this.

A curious thing happened. Japanese ink dries very quickly. When the ink dried, the people she had painted seemed to float to the surface.
She was surprised and impressed.

After a while, Toshi felt unsatisfied.
All her figures were in black clouds.
So, she added dark lines to outline her figures more clearly.

When Toshi made the outlines stronger, Iri responded by pouring more ink over the surface of the painting.
The ink’s black color adds depth.
It seems to expand the world around the outside of the painting.
I tried to imagine the tension between these two collaborating individuals.
What is it that enabled them to collaborate so successfully?

Let me talk for a few minutes about the fusion of Eastern and Western art in the panels.
Western artistic techniques were well known in Japan, and some Japanese artists created most, or all of their art following Western examples.
Others did only Japanese art.
The panels are unusual because they combine both Eastern and Western styles.

The memorable red flames in the second panel, “Fire,” are used in traditional Eastern paintings of hell.
You can see these flames in museums in Japan on painted handscrolls we call Emaki-mono.
In this panel we see a figure drawn like Michelangelo burning in traditional Eastern flames.

This was painted in 1950.
In it, you see traditional figurative painting and painting of the Buddhist flames of hell and avant garde abstract ink wash.
It may not seem unique now, but it was then.

Now I want to talk about controversial aspects of the panels.
Among the paintings we have chosen for this exhibition are #13 “The Death of American Prisoners of War,” and #14 “Crows,”
These two works still cause a great deal of controversy in Japan.

American prisoners of war in Hiroshima were killed and injured by the atomic blast.
The surviving injured prisoners were turned loose by their jailors, and assaulted and killed by Japanese civilians.
There were persistent rumors that some of the prisoners were women.

Maruki’s interviewed Japanese survivors in 1971 who said they saw women among the prisoners.
There are no official records of female prisoners.

It is estimated that 20,000 Korean conscripts were killed in the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Many people reported that the Korean injured were not helped by the Japanese.
Their bodies were left to the crows.
Some Japanese say it did not happen. Others do not want it to be remembered.

There is often no concrete proof of what happened during atrocities.
But the stories told by witnesses are often passed on to others.
These stories may only be folklore, but the Maruki’s felt these stories should be part of panels.

Maybe the eye witnesses mistook the young white men they saw, for women.
Maybe, as John Dower, the historian, says, the women were spirits of the wives and mothers of the young prisoners.

The Maruki’s witnessed the aftermath of Hiroshima and listened to the stories of the victims.
In my opinion, the panels have a special status as art, and sometimes art is more important than the facts.

The memories of the ordinary people are often excluded from the official record.
Maybe there were no women among the American prisoners of war.
Maybe the bodies of Koreans were not abandoned for the crows.

But these rumors existed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and they were part of the memories of the bombings.

These stories are a narrative of the ordinary people, and continue to be told as parables that may transcend the literal truth. Let us call them folklore.

The female prisoners and the crows are powerful images.
There probably were American prisoners killed by the Japanese civilians, and there probably were Korean bodies left to the crows.

By incorporating the more vivid folklore memories into their paintings, the Maruki’s saved stories that would have disappeared.
And, they saved the memory of victims who would have been forgotten.

I want to make a few concluding remarks.
The panels tell a terrible story.
The Mariki’s wanted to tell the story of the victims.
They wanted to influence viewers to think about peace.

Unfortunately, I am not filled with some easy, optimistic hope for greater understanding that will lead to the disappearance of nuclear weapons.
The real world is too complicated for that.

When you look at these panels repeatedly, they strip away your preconceptions.
They make us forget our nation…
Our politics…
You see here only people. You see nothing more than human beings.

Iri died at the age of 94.
Toshi died at the age of 87.
I don’t know if they were optimistic.
But they left us a great work of art.

Art can show the truth.
It is a tool that can help us develop our imaginations.
It is a seed that can grow into a new world view.
The seed may be small, but it can be the beginning of everything.