By Paul Dunwell, writing for EasyFrame
© Copyright EasyFrame 2021
The work ‘Fire’ is the 2nd panel of 15 so-called ‘Hiroshima Panels’ created between 1948 and 1982 by husband-and-wife team Iri (a Chinese-ink painter) and Toshi (an oil-painter) Maruki, after they’d witnessed the aftermath of the atomic blast at Hiroshima in 1945.
Contrary to what may well have been said and written, the Marukis were definitely not in Hiroshima at 8.15am on 6th August 1945 when ‘Little Boy’, an enriched uranium gun-type fission weapon, was exploded by the US Air Force some 600 metres above the Japanese city to kill something like 66,000 people and injure similar numbers – some of whom were American prisoners-of-war and allies who had the misfortune to be there.
Three days later at 11.02am on 9th August the more complex and destructive ‘Fat Man’ plutonium implosion-type nuclear weapon was exploded over Nagasaki to kill about 39,000 and injure 25,000.
But what the couple did was, when they arrived in Hiroshima maybe a couple of weeks later ostensibly to find out whether any of their relatives had survived, begin to create a series of ink, water-colour and chalk-on-paper images, in the form of folded-and-seamlessly-joined works that effectively encapsulated the testimonials and memories of survivors with whom they spoke. The series, which is accompanied by simple prose that the Marukis also composed, is large-scale; ‘Fire’ is, itself, 1.8 metres high and 7.2 metres long.
We look here at the work itself, the context in which it and the other panels were created, further work by the couple, and at the creators themselves.
Iri Maruki was born in Hiroshima in 1901. In 1941 (a few months before the Japanese attacked the USA fleet at Pearl Harbor and entered World War Two) he was to marry fellow artist Toshi, who had been born in Hokkaido in 1912.
Iri came from a farming community upstream from Hiroshima and established a name for himself as an exponent of ‘suibokuga’ or ink-wash painting, something that was so experimental that it put him into an avant-garde / abstract / surrealist category of artists. Subsequently, in his own right, he became famous - in particular as a landscapist who was noted for his depiction of water and clouds - before dying at 94 in 1995.
Toshi was born Toshiko Akamatsu to a family that ran a Buddhist temple in Hokkaido. A far more traditional artist, she studied oil-painting (though in the Hiroshima Panels she doesn’t use oils but water-colours) at a single-sex university in Kanagawa then travelled widely in the Pacific (effectively retracing the steps of Gauguin, whose work she loved) and to Russia. In her own right Toshi became famous as the author and illustrator of ‘Hiroshima No Pika’ (which means ‘The Bomb that Fell on Hiroshima’) and of ‘Tsutsuji no Musume’ (though it seemingly refers to azaleas, the plants, it is about longing and desire). She died at 87 in 2000.
After the war the couple collaborated on a lot of work, not just on the so-called Hiroshima Panels (the last of which features Nagasaki anyway, which is where it is now on perpetual display).
They depicted ‘The Rape of Nanking’ (in which Japanese soldiers raped perhaps 800,000 Chinese women during 1937-1938 killing many of them and those with them including husbands and children, and in doing so murdered as many as 430,000 civilians).
They likewise depicted ‘Auschwitz’, a German-run extermination camp in Poland where, of the 1.3 million sent there, 1.1 million were executed or died because of brutality, starvation and/or disease. Most victims were Jews but some were Romanies or gipsies, Poles or Russian prisoners of war. Others were Europeans but included blacks and mixed-race people, homosexuals, the disabled, those that the Nazis classed as degenerate (they liked to label unconventional artists in any medium as ‘degenerate’) and any of their own people or citizens of countries that they overran who were brave enough to stand up to them, resist them, hide others, sabotage the Axis war effort or refuse to obey orders.
The Marukis depicted ‘Minamata’ which was the location, on a Japanese island, of a mercury-poisoning disaster in 1956. The disease named after it, Chisso-Minamata disease, was caused by chemical waste that got into seafoods - where it was effectively reconcentrated - and then into not only the human population but any animals eating those seafoods. It caused neurological conditions (affecting muscles, sight, hearing and more but also paralysis and death) in well over 2,000 people, though over 10,000 have already been compensated, and the claims are still ongoing because it has affected foetuses in the womb – implying that it might harm successive generations including those yet to be born.
Lastly they portrayed ‘The Battle of Okinawa’ (also known as ‘Operation Iceberg’) which was the Allies’ biggest and bloodiest battle in the Pacific, centring on the island that they intended to use as a bomber-base to hit Japan. The Allies were predominantly Americans but also Canadians, British, Australians and New Zealanders. The fighting lasted for almost 100 days and the vastly-outnumbered Japanese and Okinawans lost well over 100,000 men whilst the Allied losses were about 15,000. Unfortunately this picture understates the true losses to the Okinawans, which may have exceeded ¼ million, since the Japanese were even using little kids as suicide bombers.
It is worth noting that the pair joined the Japanese Communist Party after the war so they may have had concerns about the West though actually the West treated the Japanese with considerable respect and helped to rebuild Japan (and Germany) after the war. Yet they were painting during times at which there was an ever-present worry of a nuclear Armageddon. The Korean War ran from 1950 to 1953, then the Vietnamese War ran from 1955 to 1975. There was the famous ‘Bay of Pigs’ confrontation between the US’s President Kennedy and Cuba’s President Castro (with the Communist world backing him) in 1961. And there were nuclear disasters creating widespread contamination including one around the test-site at Bikini Atoll in 1954, the Three Mile Island meltdown in Pennsylvania in 1979, and the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in the Ukraine.
Whatever their politics, in general it is accepted that the Marukis acted in good faith, that they created potent materials that go beyond what could be expressed photographically, and for this in 1953 they were awarded the International Peace Prize by the World Peace Council.
By the time that the bombs, developed by the so-called ‘Manhattan Project’, were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki the Allies had already beaten Hitler and Mussolini’s Axis forces in Europe. But the Japanese were proving to be more formidable in some senses. The Japanese were relatively disciplined, fearless and prepared to fight to the last man, woman and child for their Emperor who was considered to be a god. Between their invasion of China in 1937 and their surrender in 1945 the Japanese killed perhaps as many as 10 million Chinese, Koreans, Indonesians, Indochinese, Filipinos and others including Allied servicemen and women – many of whom had already surrendered and been taken prisoner.
The Japanese had deeply entrenched themselves on islands and in jungles across the Pacific, prepared to fight the kind of guerrilla war that ultimately the United States lost in Vietnam. With this in mind it has been calculated that dropping two bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved as many as 30 million lives that would have been lost if the war had continued to be fought for years with conventional weapons. In all fairness many more Japanese could have ended up dying had the war been protracted, so in terms of saved lives the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings were perhaps in Japan’s long-term interests too.
It has to be realised, also, that Japan’s entry to the war divided the allies who would otherwise have had to focus simply on beating Germany. Indeed the war in Europe (which had ended in 1944) could easily have ended earlier had Japan had not attacked US forces at Pearl Harbor. So, in this sense, the Japanese were responsible not only for those they killed directly but also those that other Axis forces killed.
But it is entirely possible that there were other reasons that ultimately compelled the Allies to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki, both of which were anyway worth flattening simply because they were industrial cities servicing the Japanese war effort. And perhaps the most likely peripheral consideration is that, with the war ending in Europe during 1944 and with Russia’s communist regime taking huge tracts of Europe in the subsequent settlements, and because China had already begun to move towards communism in 1911 (it was not a process that ended until 1949 so four years later), the use of a nuclear armoury was one way for the West - the capitalist world - to warn the communist world not to step out of line. If this was the case we should remember that the Russians had, during their fight with the Germans, shown a willingness to send millions of men to their deaths. Ultimately nuclear weapons undermine such capacity and determination.
The 15 panels are listed below with the dates in which they were completed. There may be a significance in the number as 15. The Japanese imperial emblem, and the Emperor Shōwa (the west tends to use his first name, Hirohito) had been revered as a quasi-god until the surrender at the end of World War Two, is a 16-petalled chrysanthemum. Traditionally a number that falls one short of a perfect number has been used to represent imperfection (the Devil’s number in Christian culture is 666, with 777 representing perfection as it relates to the Holy Trinity, seven days to create the universe, seven heavens etc).
|Panels 1 - 5||Panels 6 - 10||Panels 11 to 15|
|Ghosts (1950)||Atomic Desert (1952)||Mother and Child (1959)|
|Fire (1950)||Bamboo Thicket (1954)||Floating Lanterns (1969)|
|Water (1950)||Rescue (1954)||Death of American Prisoners of War (1971)|
|Rainbow (1951)||Yaizu* (1955) (*city in Japan)||Crows (1972)|
|Boys & Girls (1951)||Petition (1955)||Nagasaki (1982)|
It is important to realise that the Marukis concentrated on Japanese suffering for the first 10 panels but then began to realise the need to depict other victims. You should understand that for a decade or so after the bombings the USA was quick to censor depictions of the consequences since they knew that, however justifiable their actions were, they still had to recognise there would always be factions who could seize and utilise depictions such as pictures of the carnage which would in their hands be potentially damning and generate potentially damaging anti-US propaganda. So the Marukis were, in a sense, working against time and trying to get down on paper what they had been told by interviewees before memories faded.
‘Fire’ is created as a traditional byōbu (or ‘wind wall’) screen. They are folding screens with joined panels, ordinarily used to separate open-plan interiors within Japanese homes.
The Marukis worked on paper, laying it on the floor. What they were to now depict was a collage of what survivors told them they’d experienced. The couple used Sumi ink (despite some claims they did not use Indian ink which tends to have shellac in it while Sumi ink tends to have resins), pigment, glue, charcoal or conté (a clay graphite/charcoal crayon) on paper.
Toshi, who was good at drawing figures, marked them out first with ink and chalk. She used a lot of red, traditionally used to depict Hell of course. She then handed over to Iri, who worked monochromatically and would splash diluted ink (Sumi ink tends to be waterproof, so diluting it was always going to be interesting) all over them to soften them, to break them up and blend them. This confusion of outline was, the couple felt, a way to convey the confusion and indiscriminate chaos of war. But it seems that ultimately, unexpectedly, the figures which seemed to have disappeared into the fog of war became more distinct as the ink dried.
The translation of the artists’ own words reads:
‘These are the “Pika!” A strong blue-white flash. The explosion, the pressure, the firestorm – never on Earth or in Heaven had humankind experienced such a blast. Flames burst out in the next instant and leapt skyward. Breaking the stillness over the boundless ruins, the fire roared. Some lay unconscious, pinned by fallen beams. Others, regaining their senses, tried to free themselves only to be enveloped by the crimson blaze. Glass shards pierced bellies, arms were twisted, legs buckled, people fell and were burned alive. Hugging her child, a woman fought to free herself from beneath a fallen post.
“Hurry! Hurry!” someone shouted.
“It’s too late.”
“Then hand us the child.”
“No, you run. I will die with my child. She would only be left to wander the streets.”
The woman pushed away the helping hands and was consumed by flames.
In summary here is an historic document, a morphic memory, a piece of pacifist propaganda that is certainly thought-provoking and - if it does nothing else - a reminder that (as Churchill said) “it’s better to have jaw-jaw than war-war”.
It’s fascinating as a collaboration between man and wife because Iri was such an unconventional artist but his wife was quite a traditionalist and yet, somehow, they created this marvellous work as a mishmash of styles.
There are many who will have little sympathy for the Japanese and feel that the use of nuclear weaponry was entirely justified. But there is no denying that the work is intriguing, impactful, and makes a worthwhile statement.
It is possible to affordably buy unframed prints of work by the Marukis. See The Hiroshima Panels as an example. You can remove and frame pages from this work.
You can buy postcard-sized prints from the Maruki Gallery but not much more. They appear to charge 10,000 Yen (£65) as a minimum for high-res images.
You'll want to frame whatever you buy. Any good framers will be able to show you a vast range of different solutions and advise on what might be the most suitable given the work and its proposed location.
Article Posted: 07/07/2021 10:17:51