Saga of the Lucky Dragon and Ben Shahn’s Anti-Nuclear Art

Emboldened by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II, the United States was keen to bolster its nuclear arsenal as it entered into an arms race with the Soviet Union. The remote reefs of Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean, which had come under American occupation during the war, were identified as a suitable test site, and the 167 Bikinians were forced to relocate to other parts of the Marshall Islands. Between 1946 and 1958, 23 nuclear devices were detonated at Bikini Atoll, leaving the region contaminated and uninhabitable.

On 1 March 1954, the United States conducted an atmospheric test of a new hydrogen bomb, with the code name ‘Castle Bravo’. The most powerful nuclear device ever detonated by the United States, it produced a radioactive yield 3 times higher than scientists had predicted. Combined with strong winds, the nuclear fallout reached far across the Marshall Islands, causing radiation sickness among the inhabitants and leading to high levels of cancer and birth defects for years to come.

While the world had long turned a blind eye to the suffering of the Pacific islanders, the Castle Bravo incident caused international outrage due to the misfortune suffered by the Japanese crew of Lucky Dragon No.5 (Daigo Fukuryū Maru). Although this tuna fishing boat should have been at a safe distance from the explosion, 80 miles from Bikini Atoll and outside the danger zone set by American officials, the unexpected potency of the bomb led the fishermen to be deluged by radioactive ash, which they unwittingly cleaned from the ship’s deck with their bare hands. In the days that followed, the 23 crew members fell victim to acute radiation syndrome. Their recovery was hindered by the US government’s refusal to reveal the composition of the fallout, for reasons of national security, and, in a double tragedy, all were inadvertently infected with hepatitis C during treatment. However, amazingly, all but one would survive the experience.

The death of Lucky Dragon’s radio operator, Aikichi Kuboyama, fuelled the burgeoning anti-nuclear movement both in Japan and across the world. The fisherman’s final words, “I pray that I am the last victim of an atomic or hydrogen bomb”, touched a nerve at a time when America’s nuclear stockpile was proliferating rapidly. The country’s armoury of nuclear weapons would rise from 299 in 1950, to a high of over 31,000 devices in 1965 (the Soviet Union would reach a high of almost 40,000 nuclear weapons in 1980). American artist Ben Shahn was one of those alarmed by this acceleration and horrified to hear about the devastation caused in his country’s pursuit of military supremacy, and the incident at Bikini Atoll would continue to haunt his creative output for years to come.

In 1957, Shahn accepted a commission to illustrate a series of articles about the contamination of Lucky Dragon No.5, that were published in Harper’s Magazine in early 1958. The following year he travelled to Southeast Asia and the experience reinforced his enthusiasm for Chinese and Japanese art. Upon his return in 1960, Shahn began a series of paintings on the same theme, highlighting the injustice wrought on the burned and poisoned Japanese fishermen and powerfully advocating an end to nuclear testing. In the Lucky Dragon paintings, Shahn’s signature style is enhanced by design elements drawn from Japanese artistic traditions, while the heavy palette and scenes of lamentation provide a confrontational record of the nuclear anxiety that gripped people around the world.

Together with the writer Richard Hudson, Shahn later brought together some of his Lucky Dragon illustrations and paintings in the book Kuboyama and the Saga of the Lucky Dragon, published in 1965. While Shahn’s leftist principles and socially-directed art were viewed with suspicion by many in the United States, this series of work brought him great acclaim in Japan and across Southeast Asia. Part of Shahn and Hudson’s book is available to view online.

All images by Ben Shahn and tempera on wood. We Did Not Know What Happened to Us, c.1960, Smithsonian American Art MuseumThe Lucky Dragon, 1960, Private Collection; A Score of White Pigeons, 1960, Moderna Museet.

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