In 1947, less than two years after the U.S. military dropped a five-ton atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Washington’s All Souls Unitarian Church sent 1,000 pounds of art supplies to the children of that devastated Japanese city. Students from the Honkawa school, where more than 400 were killed in the inferno, sent back drawings and paintings of everyday life. Now, some of that artwork, hopeful in its ordinariness, is on display at the American University Museum.
The pieces, a few unusually deft but most of them average kids’ drawings, depict such activities as kite flying and schoolyard athletics. They’re part of “Hiroshima-Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Exhibition,” whose catch-all title reflects the fact that it’s actually several shows in one. Alongside the children’s work is an array of historical photographs — many of them grisly — and information on nuclear weapons from 1945 to today. There also are artifacts from the two 1945 cataclysms, as well as short films about the bombings and the art exchange.
A separate gallery holds the exhibition’s centerpiece — six large multi-panel paintings by husband-and-wife artists Iri and Toshi Maruki, who spent decades depicting World War II and its aftermath. (They made more than 20 such paintings before Iri died in 1995, five years before his wife.) The Marukis arrived in Hiroshima shortly after the Aug. 6, 1945, bombing, and felt compelled to document it. They initially focused on Japanese suffering, but later expanded to related themes, including Auschwitz and the Rape of Nanking.
The historical data includes technical facts and estimated numbers — about 140,000 dead immediately in Hiroshima, roughly 74,000 in Nagasaki (a smaller city with more hills to shelter some areas). Most immediate in impact are the photos of bodies seared in the blast or maimed over time by lingering radiation. Scattered amid the text and pictures are a burned junior high school uniform and a student’s charred lunchbox — both from Hiroshima — and a rosary whose beads melted when the bomb exploded above St. Mary’s Cathedral in Nagasaki, then the Japanese city with the largest Christian population.
The temperature of an atomic blast rivals that of the sun. A logical, if unscientific, comparison is to hell. The burning torments of the damned are depicted in “Fire,” the Marukis’ second painting, in which black figures are smeared with red that suggests both flame and blood. It’s one of several paintings in which black sumi ink of traditional Asian screen painting is augmented by other hues.
Iri was trained in Asian art, and Toshi in Western. They collaborated in different ways, and with different results, but Toshi generally painted the more realistic figures. Her husband also credited her with the ideas for most of the later works, often inspired by questions posed at exhibitions of the earlier panels.
The Marukis knew, for example, that some American POWs had perished in Hiroshima. It wasn’t until queried about those deaths, however, that they investigated and discovered that some Americans who lived through the Aug. 6 blast were then beaten to death by angry Japanese survivors. This became the subject of a 1971 painting.
There also was a much larger group of outsiders the couple didn’t depict in the early Hiroshima paintings: Koreans, an ethnic group that’s often ignored in Japan. About 40,000 Koreans, most of them forced laborers, were in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. Inspired by the account of a Korean survivor, the Marukis in 1972 painted “Crows,” which shows how the bodies of Korean victims were piled in the street and scavenged by birds.
The Marukis’ collective output is mostly grim, suggesting Hieronymus Bosch, Goya’s black paintings and Picasso’s “Guernica,” as well as lurid renderings of hell from the less gentle-minded branches of Buddhism. The couple’s culminating work, in fact, is titled “Hell.”
Included in these six paintings, however, is an optimistic one titled “Petition.” Made in 1955, the painting shows the efforts of Japanese citizens, mostly women, to ban atmospheric testing of atomic weapons. Large areas of the picture are black, but the darkness is countered by the white of two medical workers’ clothing and the blossoms of plum and cherry trees. It is spring in Japan.
For most people in the United States and Japan, the lesson of the August 1945 bombings is that such weapons must never be used again. The devastation led to a lasting alliance, as well as memories such as the one shown in the film “Pictures From a Hiroshima Schoolyard” — in which former students from the Honkawa school, 60 years later, recall the gift of art supplies from the All Souls in D.C.
Yet some Americans insist that the bombings were necessary. And some Japanese remain adamant that their nation was the victim, not a victimizer, during World War II. Surveying the ruins of Hiroshima in 1945, the Marukis thought that, too. But their worldview expanded, and their art with it.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
American University Museum
at the Katzen Arts Center,
4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW. 202-885-1300.
Dates: Through Aug. 16.