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Thursday, September 10, 2015

The Amazing Juggler Performs, but Does He Enjoy It?

I am currently enrolled as a student at the Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC).  This semester I am taking an art appreciation class. The following was written as an assignment for that class. We were required to visit the Des Moines Art Center (either in person, or by way of the internet), to view the works on display and to write about one of them.
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I don’t know if “The Amazing Juggler” (oil on canvas, 64 3/4” x 39 5/8”) by the Japanese born, American artist Yasuo Kuniyoshi, was specifically intended by the artist to be understood as a self-portrait, but the painting can certainly be read as such. Painted in 1952, a year before his death, it is a haunting and melancholic dream of his life and career as an artist in America.

Featuring a cast of circus performers-two acrobats and the eponymous juggler-in an uncertain and ambiguously defined space, “The Amazing Juggler” continues Kuniyoshi’s lifelong use of circus and carnival themes. One of the acrobats tumbles through the background, moving horizontally through the upper third. Is this clown tumbling into or out of the frame? In the lower right, another female performer rests in the curved trunk of an elephant. But it is the juggler who holds central position in the painting. He is deftly juggling four balls while riding a bicycle. Above them all are the poles and cables of the circus tent–or are they the steel frames of modern city skyscrapers? Everything is motion; the acrobat is cavorting, the elephant rider is rocked, the juggler cycles towards the viewer. Even the foreground and background are in motion, merging in uncertain space. The red performance floor pushes backward, vertically, into what is either the sky or the circus tent.

Most of the work is defined by the shapes of the performers–but the space they perform in is defined and broken by lines. The horizon is uneven. What may be read as the floor also becomes the vertical line of the circus tent post. The sky above is divided the painting’s strongest lines–dark and rigid–but even so, they give no clear definition of the space.

Kuniyoshi has painted this picture with rough strokes and dry scumbled paint. In many places, pencil lines show through the paint. The effect is to create soft focus haze that emphasizes the dream-like qualities of the painting. Even the garish colors–bright red, pink, magenta, turquoise, and orange–are softened. What could easily become a nightmare is subtly subdued.

The Juggler occupies the same space as the vertical dividing line with a performer on either side. But Kuniyoshi has kept this from becoming a static arrangement by arranging the two other performers on a diagonal line. The Juggler himself seems instable, almost ready to fall off the bicycle, but is held balanced against that strong vertical line. The balance is precarious, however; the chaotic motion of the performers comes dangerously close to a crash. Perhaps that is the thrill of their performance.

In contrast to the other two performers in this painting, the Juggler is wearing a mask. And his mask, in contrast to the rest of the painting, filled with bright, brash color, is sober in black and white and with its long nose resembles the medico della peste (“plague doctor”) masks of Venetian carnivals, a memento mori symbol of death. The mask displays a rictus that may be a smile–but only ambiguously so. Is it pleasure? Is it pain? Is it something of both?

Born in Japan in 1889, Yasuo Kuniyoshi came to America, alone, in 1906. He lived in the United States of America the rest of his life, but was prohibited by law from ever becoming an American citizen. Even after living in this country for decades, and having become a respected member of the artistic community, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Kuniyoshi’s status went from “resident alien” to “enemy alien” (Wang 3).

Kuniyoshi, like many other immigrants at the time, was placed under house arrest and interrogated by
the FBI. His camera was confiscated (a hardship since he worked as a photographer as well as a painter). Yet, unlike many other Japanese Americans at the time, Kuniyoshi avoided the internment camps. He was spared this indignity because he had a few, well connected friends who vouched for him, and because he willingly (if not pleasurably) contributed to the production of war-time propaganda (Wang 5 – 6). A photograph in Time magazine shows him working on a hateful painting of a characterized Japanese General Hideki Tojo. (Time, 20 April, 1942.)

If understood as a self-portrait, “The Amazing Juggler” shows us a Yasuo Kuniyoshi, who is a precariously balanced performer, skillfully performing his tricks-but aware that stability is precarious. His place in society is held only through dexterous manipulation, keeping all the props aloft and in motion, a balancing act that threatens to veer off course and come crashing down. He hides behind a mask that seems to say “I am smiling, see how much fun we’re having,” but that smile is dubious and there a foreboding of death. It is the American dream-almost a nightmare. The Amazing Juggler performs, but does he enjoy it?




Wang, Shi Pu. Becoming American? The Art and Identity Crisis of Yasuo Kuniyoshi. University of Hawai’i Press. 2011.



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