THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: Sueo and Ikuo Serisawa’s lifelong dedication to the arts

bioline_Greg RobinsonIn my Jan. 1, 2018 Nichi Bei Weekly article on prewar Nisei films, I discussed the 1935 film “Nisei Parade,” produced by the brothers Ikuo and Sueo Serisawa. Publication of the article has brought on the question of what happened afterward to the young filmmakers, notably to Sueo Serisawa. In fact, Serisawa’s work on the film came at the outset of a long and distinguished career in art and design.

Sueo Serisawa was born in Yokohama, Japan in 1910, two years before his brother Ikuo (I incorrectly listed Ikuo as the elder in my previous article.) Their father Yoichi Serisawa was a painter who had studied with Hashimoto Gaho at the Japan Academy of Fine Arts. The elder Serisawa moved the family to Seattle, and then on to Long Beach, Calif., where he worked as a calligrapher and commercial artist. After Yoichi Serisawa’s early death from lung cancer in 1927, Mrs. Serisawa returned to Japan, leaving the teenage Serisawa boys alone. Both turned to art, Ikuo to photography and Sueo to painting.

While studying at the Long Beach Polytechnic High School, Sueo was taken up by his art teacher, George Barker. Barker (who had trained with Laurie Wallace, a disciple of the master American Realist Thomas Eakins) schooled his pupil in European classicism and the techniques of the Old Masters. In 1932, Serisawa enrolled at Otis Art Institute, where he trained under the New York realist Alexander Brook, a specialist in figure studies.

After completing his courses, Sueo joined with his brother during 1934 in shooting a documentary-style film of Little Tokyo and crafting a scenario. The result, a 2,000-foot silent film, “Nisei Parade,” was previewed at the Miyako Hotel in December 1934 before opening officially early the following year. While the film did not achieve great commercial success, its photography was praised in Hollywood (notably by celebrated director Fritz Lang) and was awarded an honorable mention for documentaries in the 1935 ASCE Amateur Movie awards. According to Larry Tajiri, writing 10 years later, the only print of the film went to a photo supply dealer who had provided film and other materials to the producers. Serisawa reaped an extra dividend from the film when he married Mary Tanaka, one of the film’s leads (her sister married Ikuo Serisawa).

Mary would serve as one of her husband’s principal models, as did later their daughter Margaret.

Meanwhile, Sueo began working as a painter and portrait artist in Los Angeles. In 1934, one of his works appeared in the invitational exhibit of contemporary American painting held at University of Illinois-Champaign. In 1937, he had his first solo show in his hometown of Long Beach, an exhibit of his portraits and landscapes done in oil. Meanwhile, Serisawa’s “Backstreet,” a Little Tokyo scene, won first prize at the Laguna Beach art salon, and then honorable mention at the Pomona County Fair. (Drawing on his experience in Little Tokyo, Serisawa also produced “A Second Generation,” a portrait study of Issei and Nisei.) That same year, his work was featured in an exhibit of art by “California oriental painters” at the Foundation of Western Art in 1937. In 1939, his still life “The Three Pears” was featured in the Invitational Southern California art exhibit in San Diego’s Balboa Park.

In 1939, his first Los Angeles solo exhibition of his art was held at the city’s Tone Price Gallery. The esteemed critic Arthur Miller said of the show, “(Serisawa) is the most promising artist and especially his improvement and advancement in quality of many of his paintings in the last two or three years are very noticeable.” The solo show led to increased exposure for the young artist. In April 1940, Serisawa’s work appeared alongside that of Benji Okubo and Hideo Date in a show at USC’s Harrison Gallery. Soon after, he held a solo exhibition at the Dalzell Hatfield Galleries, located in the city’s Ambassador Hotel. Hatfield would remain a prominent dealer and supporter of his work.

In October 1940, his painting of a church in a summer landscape was featured in the eighth annual Foundation of Western Art’s “Trend” Show. A painting of his won second prize in a show at the California State Fair. In December, he was awarded the Western Foundation of Arts Medal as the most promising young Southern California artist. Serisawa remained similarly active in 1941. In February, he held a solo oil painting exhibition at Scripps College. The following month, he joined in the annual exhibit of art at the Oakland Art Gallery (today’s Oakland Museum of California) alongside such artists as Miné Okubo and Henry Sugimoto. In September his painting, “A Portrait of a Singer,” (a study of Nisei soprano Tomi Kanazawa) was displayed at an invitational art exhibit of California Paintings at the Los Angeles County Fair at Pomona.

One of his watercolors won first prize at the San Diego exhibition. Serisawa’s work meanwhile attracted the attention of MGM composer and producer Arthur Freed, who commissioned him to do portraits of performers Ann Sothern and Judy Garland for the studio. In the fall of 1941, Sueo Serisawa was granted a large-scale solo exhibition at Los Angeles’ Museum of History, Science, and Art (today the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles), which honored him as ‘artist of the month.” However, the exhibit opened on Dec. 7, 1941 — the day Pearl Harbor was bombed. While the LA Times respectfully reviewed the exhibition, it was all but ignored in the ensuing crisis.

In early 1942, in the wake of Executive Order 9066, both Serisawa brothers made the difficult decision to move their families off the West Coast in order to escape mass confinement. After settling in Colorado and then Chicago (where he studied at the famed Art Institute of Chicago school). During all this time, he continued to ship his work to Los Angeles for storage and handling by Dalzell Hatfield galleries. In 1943, Serisawa moved to New York. There he settled in the bohemian Greenwich Village neighborhood.

According to critic Arthur Miller, Serisawa was not keen on life in New York. “Great place to find stimulation. Bad place to live. Artists there eat each other. One develops a trick and everybody rushes to copy it.”

Nevertheless, his involuntary exile from California paid dividends artistically. While in New York he made contact with artists such as Isamu Noguchi, and he was invited to spend time working with Yasuo Kuniyoshi at his house in the Woodstock art colony. His work attracted favorable attention from East Coast galleries. After attending a show of the German artist Max Beckmann, Serisawa was inspired to adopt a more radical expressionist style that mixed Asian and Western elements. In 1945 he participated in two exhibitions at the Lilienfeld gallery. The gallery offered him a solo show, but it was later postponed indefinitely due to difficulties in transporting his work from Los Angeles.

In 1947, Serisawa and his family returned to the West Coast. He was hired to teach art at the Kann Institute of Art (1948-50) and later at Scripps College (1950-51). He also offered private art lessons to Hollywood actors and writers such as Edward G. Robinson, Claire Trevor and Frances Marion. During this period Serisawa studied the religious teachings of J. Krishnamurti, and became absorbed in Zen Buddhist art and philosophy, which would exercise a lasting influence on his painting.

He and Ikuo teamed up again to produce the film “Bunka,” a short color film about Japanese culture in Southern California.

In the following years, Serisawa became one of Southern California’s best-known artists. In 1948 he enjoyed a second solo show at the Dalzell Hatfield Galleries, and later participated in others at the Wildenstein Gallery and Felix Landau Gallery. In 1949, his painting won the $1,000 first prize at the California State fair competition. In 1952, his painting “Trees” appeared in a show a the LA County Museum and was heavily praised. Meanwhile, he participated in exhibitions farther afield. In 1947, his oil painting “Pierrot” won the Carol H. Beck medal for best portrait at an exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Three years later, his painting “House of Cards” was also featured at the Academy. In 1950 his painting “Puppet and Child” (described by New York Times critic Howard Devree as one that “successfully infuses occidental abstract approach with oriental spirit”) was featured in a competitive show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, whose directors proceeded to acquire the painting for $1,000. In 1958, he showed his semi-abstract painting “Mountain” at the annual of the Whitney Museum in New York. He also branched out to commercial art, designed greeting cards for Hallmark and record album covers for the Pacific Jazz company among other work.

In 1955, Serisawa returned to Japan for the first time since his childhood, and visited Tokyo and Kyoto, where he studied traditional Japanese art and design, and began to embrace a more spiritual mission. As he later explained it, “the deeper meaning of art is the expression of universal themes and truths.”

Upon his return to California, Serisawa was commissioned by the Huntington Library to refurbish the landmark teahouse in their Japanese garden, formerly closed to the public, and open it as a permanent display of Japanese design. In the ensuing years, he altered his style from European-style expressionism to heavy reliance on use of Japanese abstract elements. During the 1960s, he began using calligraphic forms and producing and gold or silver-leaf sumi ink paintings. In subsequent years, he began producing wood-block prints as well as creating acrylic and oil paintings that integrated elements of traditional screen painting.

In the mid-1970s, Serisawa remarried and moved to Idyllwild, Calif., a small mountain community, and afterwards taught art at the University of Southern California in Idyllwild. Nature and natural forms became the predominant subjects in much of his work. As one critic later termed it, his style, which he termed “Humanistic Expressionism” sought to evoke humanity’s shared emotional and spiritual connection to nature and the cosmos. A retrospective of his work was held at the Occidental College in Laguna Beach, and his work was held in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York Museum of Modern Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Smithsonian Institution, and the San Diego Museum of Art. Serisawa remained in California, still creating works of art and teaching until he died on Sept. 8, 2004 at the age of 94. His unsung career, with its many highlights, wartime interruptions, and durability, expresses many of the themes of the Japanese American experience.

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., author of “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans” and “A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America,” is a professor of history at l’Université du Québec À Montréal. His new book based upon his Nichi Bei columns, “The Great Unknown: Japanese American Sketches,” was recently published by University Press of Colorado. He can be reached at robinson.greg@uqam.ca. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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