THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: Rediscovering artist and political activist Chuzo Tamotsu

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bioline_Greg RobinsonChuzo Tamotsu, a colorful figure, was one of the most skilled and visible members of the circle of Issei artists in New York in the 1930s.

Chuzo Tamotsu (aka Tamotzu) was born in Japan on Feb. 19, 1891, and grew up in the village of Toguchi. During his school years, he began studying both Japanese sumi painting and occidental art under private tutors. He studied political economics at Senshu College for two years. After leaving school, he did his military service, which helped confirm him in his anti-militarist ideas. (Among other things, a superior officer sexually assaulted him in the bath, then reported him for disobedience when he resisted. Luckily, Tamotsu was able to persuade the high commander that the Emperor did not expect him to do such things as part of his oath of allegiance).

In 1914, Tamotsu left Japan to study art abroad, traveling through Korea, Manchuria, China, Singapore and the South Sea Islands. In 1919, following the end of World War I, he toured Europe, and spent a year visiting various museums to study the works of the great masters, earning his way by selling his artwork. In 1920 he sailed from Europe to the United States, landing at Norfolk, Va. (He later claimed that he had applied for citizenship upon arrival, despite laws forbidding naturalization to Asians).

In December 1920, Tamotsu moved to New York City and settled in Greenwich Village. In the two decades that followed, he pursued a career as a painter there. Like many Japanese immigrant artists, he entered the circle of painter Yasuo Kuniyoshi, and both Tamotsu’s art and life reflected Kuniyoshi’s powerful influence.

Tamotsu achieved his first public recognition by participating in shows produced by the Society of Independent Artists. At their 1927 show he presented “Bathers,” a crowded scene set in the steam room of a women’s Turkish bath. Two years later, he exhibited “Midway Scene,” a circus painting that brought approving notice from Christian Science Monitor critic Ralph Flint. In 1931 he contributed “Road Paving,” a work whose satiric nature was lauded by New York Times critic Edward Alden Jewell.

Tamotsu soon sought further venues for his art. In December 1929, he displayed five paintings in a show at the Opportunity Gallery, which had become well known for exhibiting modern American art. Carlyle Burrows, writing in the New York Herald Tribune, acknowledged the influence of Kuniyoshi on Tamotsu’s art, but praised its qualities: “His landscape with donkeys is unusual both in concept and color; his “Down Hill,” a Hudson River village subject, is crisp and authentic.” In 1931, Tamotsu joined another show at the Opportunity Gallery, for which he produced the colorfully-named painting, “Landscape with Chickens.” That same year, Tamotsu joined a show of four artists at the G.R.D. Studio. Critic C.B., writing in the New York Herald Tribune, described Tamotsu as “given to painting somber little landscape scenes in the occidental manner, which are well equipped with personality.” In 1936 he participated in a show held at the temporary galleries of New York’s Municipal Art Committee. Tamotsu showed “Peace Valley,” which New York Times critic Howard Devree praised as “a study in shades of green.”

In 1931 Tamotsu made a bold gesture when he joined An American Group, Inc., a collective of independent artists who denounced the “racket” of exploitative French art dealers and opened their own cooperative gallery at New York’s Barbizon Plaza Hotel, where they organized both group and one-artist exhibitions. In January of 1932 Tamotsu had his first one-man show, “Paintings by Tamotzu,” at the group’s gallery.  In 1934, 1937 and 1940 he participated in other An American Group shows, as well as its traveling exhibitions.

Sometime in the mid-1930s, Tamotsu was recruited by Juliana Force, curator of the Whitney Museum of American Art, to work on the Federal Arts Project, part of the New Deal-era Works Progress Administration. He was engaged both on the Easel Project and also on the Graphic Art Project. One highlight of his tenure came in 1936 when Tamotsu displayed some drawings in a show at the WPA Federal Art Project Gallery that was viewed by more than 60,000 visitors. Nonetheless, soon afterward WPA directors fired Tamotsu and his Issei colleagues from the Project on the (rather specious) grounds that they were not U.S. citizens.

In fact, Tamotsu’s dismissal may not have been unrelated to his political activism, which continued through the 1930s. In January 1933, he contributed to put on a show by the John Reed Club, the Communist Party’s cultural wing. Tamotsu’s painting, entitled “Force of the Masses,” was a panoramic image of the Bonus Army (the World War I veterans whom Tamotsu’s friend Eitaro Ishigaki would also depict in his art). In mid-1937 he produced a Spanish Civil War landscape that was displayed at a show on Spain at Delphic Studios. That same year, in the wake of the Japanese invasion of China, Tamotsu invited Chinese artists to join the annual show of Japanese painters in which he participated at the A.C.A. Gallery in New York. In 1940, Tamotsu donated a painting for sale to raise money for the American Rescue Ship Mission, which helped transport political refugees to the United States. In March 1941 he joined in another benefit, the Art For China, to aid Chinese war orphans. Columnist Leonard Lyons quoted Tamotsu as saying that his art was “One small way to express my love for peace and hatred for war…is to do what I can for any victims of aggression, wherever they may be.”

By 1940, Tamotsu had left Lower Manhattan and taken up residence at 100 West 54th St., where he lived together with two female partners: Sushila Shikari, a Hindu dancer, and Anne Mentzowe, a painter for the WPA. In 1941 after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Tamotsu volunteered as a combat artist with the Office of Strategic Services, doing propaganda paintings and producing anti-war leaflets to be dropped over Japan. After tours of duty in New York and Washington, D.C., Tamotsu was posted overseas to Kunming, China in 1945.

In September 1945, following his discharge, Tamotsu returned to New York City. His first postwar exhibit was at the New-Age Gallery. He also participated in a notable show of Japanese American artists at New York’s Riverside Museum in 1947. Together with Kuniyoshi, in 1947 he became a founding member of the New York Artists’ Equity Association.

In 1948, Tamotsu experienced a dramatic life change when he married artist Louise Kates. After their marriage, the Tamotsus visited the well-known artists’ colony of Santa Fe, N.M. They decided to make their home there, and moved into a studio on Garcia Street that had once belonged to John Sloan, the “ashcan school” master.

Tamotsu spent the rest of his life in New Mexico. He became a familiar sight to locals: a thin man with gray hair and a long beard who walked the streets of Santa Fe with a cane and sketch book. He could also be seen motoring about town in an aged Model-T Ford, until it finally quit running. In 1953, as a member of the Alliance for the Arts, he directed a project to promote international understanding and goodwill. As part of the project, he arranged an art exchange between school children in New Mexico and Hiroshima.

Once in Santa Fe, Tamotsu continued to work as an artist, participating in exhibitions and giving sumi ink painting demonstrations. Throughout the 1950s, Tamotsu held annual exhibitions of his art at the Museum of New Mexico. He also continued to exhibit occasionally in New York. For instance, in 1956 he joined a giant show of 133 artists at the Barbizon Plaza Gallery. Tamotsu frequently signed his works in Japanese with characters meaning, “The Ageless Wanderer.” His life and drawings provided the subject of Harriet Kimbro’s book of poetry, “Tamotzu in Haiku” (1977).

In 1967, Tamotsu made his first trip back to Japan in some 50 years. Following the trip, he produced some 60 sketches of Japan, plus a number of paintings. In 1974, at age 83, he converted his studio into the Tamotsu Gallery to show his paintings. He died in New Mexico a year later, on May 18, 1975.

In the years after his death, Tamotsu has become a more familiar name to Japanese audiences. There have been exhibitions of his work, notably at the Kumamoto Museum in 1992 and Kagoshima in 2003,  and a biography by Aiko Izumisawa. He remains oddly unknown in North America. His life and artistic career merit rediscovery and analysis.

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. 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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