These days, when the news is usually bad and often horrific, even resolute humanists may be reconsidering misanthropy. Before succumbing to cynicism, check out “Painting to Live,” the moving exhibit at UC Berkeley’s Institute of East Asian Studies.
The show features paintings, drawings and Christmas cards produced by four artists from Okinawa between 1948 and 1950, along with paintings by one of their students and others by an American doctor, Stanley Steinberg.
As curator Jane Dulay says in her notes to the show, the exhibit is a testament to “the resilience of the human spirit” and “a celebration of art and life out [of] a period of war and anguish.”
In 1948 Steinberg was in Okinawa as part of the American military occupation that followed World War II. One day he and three other young American military physicians happened upon a small artist colony near the ruins of Shuri Castle. In a land devastated by war, the artists were trying to recreate their lives. They called themselves the Nishimui Artist Society.
Steinberg writes of this first meeting: “I was absolutely delighted. Something of Okinawa’s civilization had survived in this absolutely flattened, unfortunate country.” Invited into a studio for a private showing, he asked to buy some of their paintings, which, he says, “were startling good” and also to take painting lessons. His request, which he recalls as “quite bold,” was granted.
On the one side, the artists “needed an appropriate audience,” as well as a living; they sold their work to Steinberg and other physicians in exchange for cartons of Lucky Strike cigarettes, at the time one of the local currencies. On the other side, the young Americans were seeking out culture and community in a ravaged foreign place. “For the next two years,” Steinberg writes, “our weekends were spent together.”
In 1950 Steinberg returned to the United States, left the military and began practicing psychiatry in San Francisco. He cherished the memory of his encounter with the Okinawan artists and hung their landscape paintings on the walls of his office. And there they might have remained, out of the public eye, if not for another happenstance.
In 1992, Steinberg was supervising Jane Dulay, then a resident in psychiatry. When Dulay walked into Steinberg’s office at the California Pacific Medical Center for the first time and saw the paintings, she told him that they reminded her of the place where she grew up. He asked her where that was.
Her answer: Okinawa. “It is Okinawa,” he said. That exchange was the beginning of a connection that grew beyond professional collegiality into a deep friendship. It also sparked Dulay’s desire to put on an exhibit of Steinberg’s collection of paintings and photographs of the Okinawan artists. The show, she told me, “was mainly a gift to Stanley. I did it for him.”
But she did it for herself, too, as a way of “giving back” to the Okinawan people. The daughter of Fillipino immigrants, Dulay grew up on Okinawa because her father was stationed there as a member of the American military. “I’m ashamed of how we as military people treated the Okinawans,” she says. When she was growing up, “There weren’t a lot of models like Stanley Steinberg who mingled with the local community.” She hopes the exhibit will help people realize that “there’s a culture there,” and to increase interest in and respect for Okinawa.
The members of the Nishimui Artist Society—Masayoshi Adaniya, Kanemasa Ashimine, Itoku Gushiken, Seikichi Tamanaha and Chosho Ashitomi—are now credited with founding Okinawa’s modernist artist movement. But this is the first time that their paintings—landscapes and portraits—have been shown in the United States. Drawn from Steinberg’s and others’ private collections, the exhibit also includes photographs of the artists and the American soldiers who befriended them, all taken between 1948 and 1950.
Thanks to the show their work is winning new recognition. An Okinawan filmmaker is doing a documentary on “Painting to Live” that will screen in Okinawa in November and that may be shown at the Oakland Museum. And since Dulay issued an internet call for work of the Nishimui artists, the market value of their work has risen substantially.
“Painting to Live” will be at the Institute of East Asian Studies through Sept. 7. The IEAS Gallery is at 2223 Fulton St. on the 6th floor, open Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free. For more information, call 642-2809.
Image: untitled landscape, 1949, oil on masonite by Kanemasa Ashimine, 1916-1993.