- By Proxy of His Black Hero: The Bonus March (1932) and Eitarō Ishigaki’s Critical Engagement in American Leftist Discourses
In 1932, artist Eitarō Ishigaki (石垣荣太郎, 1893–1958) created an oil painting titled The Bonus March (Figure 1). Standing at nearly five feet tall and three and a half feet wide, the picture depicts a towering Black figure cradling a Caucasian-looking figure, whose limp body drapes over the muscular arm of his rescuer, his right fist tightly clenched and raised. Centrally positioned, the figures’ shirtless, interlocking torsos form an unwavering triangle that dominates the image. Encroaching on this pair, however, are two men in uniform on the left and an artillery tank with its main gun threateningly aiming at the Black figure’s head. Undeterred, the central figure appears to stare down the tank with unflinching determination, and the plain-clothed people behind him on the right seem to echo his action as they also defiantly face the approaching threats, forming a united front.
A work that attests to Ishigaki’s superb draftsmanship, The Bonus March, with its pictorial style, may not look dissimilar to other paintings produced in American art during the 1920s and 1930s. The sculptural modeling of the faces, the meticulously constructed brushstrokes that highlight the central figures’ musculature, and the compact composition, all seem to reflect a kind of aesthetics that would flourish in the New Deal era—evident in the public art projects by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), established in 1935 as part of the Roosevelt administration’s effort to combat unprecedented economic [End Page 7]
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devastations throughout the country. The subject matter of social unrest also places The Bonus March within the tradition of the so-called American social realist art produced in the same decades, for the painting’s title refers to a historical event underlined by grave economic and sociopolitical struggles. [End Page 8] Ishigaki depicts a critical moment in WWI veterans’ famous march into Washington D.C. in the summer of 1932 to demand that the U.S. government distribute the promised “bonus checks” to compensate for their wartime services in a time of severe economic difficulties. The pictorial representation of the masses, particularly the working class, fighting for their rights and welfare (often against the capitalistic Establishment), was indeed one that often appeared in the artistic production of many American progressives and leftists in the 1920s and 1930s.1
However, one is also likely to recognize that Ishigaki’s Bonus March is an unusual work in at least two respects. The artist’s Japanese name may not be familiar to those who are well-versed in pre-WWII American art and thus raises immediate questions of who the artist is, what his oeuvre looks like, and why he painted a large canvas about the march. A cursory search in most English-language surveys of twentieth-century American art, or even those focusing on the art produced in the interwar years, yields little substantial information about Ishigaki. Mentioned only in passing, the artist’s name appears in art historian Andrew Hemingway’s Artists on the Left: American Artists and the Communist Movement, 1926–1956, and indicates that Ishigaki was not only an established artist but also an active member of progressive organizations in New York in the early decades of the twentieth century. Yukiko Koshiro’s “Beyond an Alliance of Color: The African American Impact on Modern Japan,” is the rare piece of scholarship that offers extended discussion of Ishigaki’s political activism, but his artwork did not receive much critical analysis.2 Furthermore, Ishigaki’s rendition of a heroic Black figure stands out from the majority of artwork produced by his contemporaries, who largely chose to depict African Americans as passive victims of racism and injustice. This different pictorial strategy by a Japanese immigrant artist, who is hardly mentioned in the American art canon, not only provokes curiosity but also suggests that an investigation into the meaning, the historical context, and the...