December 1937
Exhibition of In Defense of World Democracy:
Dedicated to the People of Spain

Fig. 107. Eitaro Ishigaki, “Flight”
Fig. 108. Chuzo Tamotzu, "Militarism Over Japan"
Fig. 109. Sakari Suzuki, "War"
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Japanese artists who were active in the United States had gained recognition in the art world. However, their position became increasingly tenuous in the U.S. as tensions rose in Japan and in other countries over Japan’s invasion of China. 

At the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War in July 1937, President Roosevelt’s call for the isolation of the aggressor nations had a souring effect on relations between the two countries. Following the speech, Japan declined to participate in the November Brussels Conference and subsequently withdrew from the Nine-Power Treaty, which had been signed in 1922 to affirm the sovereignty and borders of the Republic of China. This event marked the conclusion of the Washington regime that had been established since the Washington Naval Conference in 1922. 

In December, the ‘Panay Incident,’ in which a Japanese navy vessel sank an American gunboat near the Yangtze River in China, led to heightened criticism of Japan in the United States. In December 1937, an exhibition titled “An Exhibition of In Defense of World Democracy: Dedicated to the Peoples of Spain and China” was organized by the American Artists’ Congress. Henry Glintenkamp, chairman of the exhibition’s organizing committee, described the exhibition as a

“The exhibition “In Defense of World Democracy: Dedicated to the Peoples of Spain and China” at 550 Fifth Avenue features paintings by Japanese artists expressing their disapproval of Japanese warlords. One of the paintings, “Militarism Over Japan” by Chuzo Tamotzu, depicts a Japanese farm family being crushed by a war tank driven by a well-decorated Japanese general. Eitaro Ishigaki’s painting, “Flight,” portrays Chinese peasants leaving a burning city with their children and belongings. Sakari Suzuki’s “War” is a surreal composition of skulls, dead bodies, gas masks, bayonets, helmets, and trenches”.

(Denouncing War in Paint: Japanese Artists Portray Horrors of War Machine: Their Show is dedicated to the Peoples of Spain and China”. New York Post, Dec.14, 1937)

“Two of the most dissatisfied contributors are Japanese artists Eitaro Ishigaki and Sakari Suzuki. The latter’s “War” is a composition of a dead Chinese in the arms of a military-hatted skeleton whose kind looks like bayonets and whose toothy skull looks like the worst hangover you ever suffered.” 

(“Fascism, War Kicked Around in Artists’ Congress, Japanese Critical.” New York World Telegram, Dec.16, 1937)

A symposium was held in conjunction with the exhibition to address concerns regarding the Japanese invasion of China and the Spanish Civil War. The attendees resolved to boycott Japanese products. During the symposium, Yasuo Kuniyoshi mentioned that the Metropolitan Museum of Art did not purchase his work due to his lack of U.S. citizenship, which he considered discriminatory, just like the WPA’s dismissal of Japanese nationals.

Pablo Picasso delivered a message by telephone,

“Artists should not be ignorant of wars that threaten the most precious things of humanity and civilization.”

In light of this, the December 1937 exhibition “An Exhibition of In Defense of World Democracy: Dedicated to the Peoples of Spain and China,” could certainly be positioned as an exhibition in which Japanese artists demonstrated their condemnation of militarism and fascist forces and appealed to their anti-war statement.