The Artistic Journey of Yasuo Kuniyoshi — Early Work

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Circus Girl Resting
Oil on canvas
38 ⅖ x 28 ½ in. (97.5 x 72.5 cm)

Kuniyoshi painted Circus Girl Resting just after his first visit to Europe in 1925. Strongly influenced by the more erotic subjects he encountered in Paris, he painted an unashamedly provocative image of a voluptuous woman, one strap of her skimpy slip falling to reveal her breast, and black stockings exposing an expanse of thigh. Her direct gaze, suggestive smile, and hand pulling back a curtain are signs of a seductress rather than a circus performer. Even the fruit bowl’s arrangement of bananas and grapes underscores the theme.

In 1946 the US Department of State purchased this painting to be included in its Advancing American Art exhibition, an important cultural diplomacy project that featured such notable contemporary artists as Romare Bearden, Stuart Davis, Marsden Hartley, Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Charles Sheeler. But for many Americans modern art still seemed subversive, and the exhibition was closed under sharp criticism. Circus Girl Resting was singled out by no less than President Harry Truman, not for its eroticism but for its unrealistic figure proportions. A subtext of this criticism was Kuniyoshi’s background as an “alien” from Japan, the enemy just defeated.