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  • Kitagawa Tamiji:Painting in the Pursuit of Pigmented Knowledge of Self and Other
  • Bert Winther-Tamaki (bio)

The Japanese painter Kitagawa Tamiji 北川民次 (1894–1989) is a particularly rewarding subject for considering a set of questions about the capacity of painting to function as a tool for acquiring and producing social knowledge in the dislocative experiences of the early twentieth century. How could a painter who was also a traveler deploy his or her medium in the pursuit of knowledge about strangers encountered in foreign places? And, after settling abroad for extended periods, how could an expatriate Japanese painter use this medium to make himself known to natives of this environment? Finally, how did the practice of painting geared toward social needs of this sort also contribute to the painter’s self-knowledge, evolving through years of migration and subsequent reentry to Japanese society?

After a brief period studying oil painting at the Preparatory Division of Waseda University in Tokyo, Kitagawa moved at age twenty from Japan to the United States, where he remained for seven years (1914–21), then relocated to Mexico, where he resided for fifteen years until age forty-two (1921–36), and finally spent the rest of his long life in Japan. This study focuses on Kitagawa’s use of the medium of figurative painting to mediate differences of race and culture that he encountered during the formative years of his travel and artistic maturation, as well as his readjustment to Japanese society in the first decade after his return.1 The relatively small number of Japanese people in the United States and Mexico in the early twentieth century gave him an exceptional status that encumbered his painterly pursuits with different obstacles and greater instability than travelers whose identities positioned them within more established patterns of stereotypical, discriminatory, or privileged reception. W. E. B. Du Bois famously wrote in 1903 of the “frightful chasm at the color line across which men pass at their peril,’’2 but since Asian people in early-twentieth-century North America generally found fewer templates for identification—whether felicitous or injurious—on either side of the color line, negotiating the “frightful chasm” was a destiny of perhaps less predetermined outcomes than was the case for more populous groups. As we shall see, the story of Kitagawa’s journey through the chasm at the color line was particularly noteworthy for his creative deployments of the colors of paint pigments in his métier as an artist.

The study of Kitagawa is rewarding not only because his paintings of himself and others provide an expressive visual record of his travels but also because these images are further illuminated by a Japanese-language autobiographical account of this journey that the artist published in 1955, nearly twenty years after returning to Japan. Though titled Youth in Mexico: Fifteen Years with the Indians (Mekishiko no seishun: jūgonen o indeian to tomo ni メ キ シ コ の青春 :十五年 をイ ン デ ィ ア ン と共 に), this colorful narrative actually recounts a passage throughout North America, starting with his arrival on the West Coast, continuing with his years in New York City, traveling next through the South, then on to Cuba, and finally through Mexico, where he experienced diverse locales ranging from urban neighborhoods in Mexico City to a poor rural Indian farming community.3 Kitagawa displays a flair for storytelling and readers of his narrative may wonder how close to the truth some of the described adventures may be, but there is little doubt that the frustrations, disappointments, and yearnings expressed in this text bear a close relationship to the passions that propelled this artist on his extraordinary journey. Of course Kitagawa’s paintings and later writings do not provide an “objective” documentary of his travels; what follows is a sympathetic and sometimes skeptical account of the artist’s immediate and ex post facto subjective responses to the varied social milieus he encountered.

New York, Florida, Cuba

Unfortunately, none of Kitagawa’s early paintings and drawings that predate his arrival in Mexico survive, for example, from the period when he attended night classes at the Art Students League in New York City taught by John Sloan, a leading American proponent of the gritty urban realist mode of painting known...