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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Art and Diplomacy in Franco’s Spain

The Pact of Madrid, signed on 26 September 1953, brought the United States into a controversial alliance with Spain’s fascist government, ruled over by General Francisco Franco. Since the end of World War II, and the defeat of its Axis collaborators, Spain had been largely isolated from the international community and formally excluded in a UN resolution of 1946. But the deepening Cold War presented a glimmer of hope for Spain’s diplomatic future.

With the Soviet Union strengthening its influence over the Eastern Bloc, and the Marshall Plan barely containing the rise of Communism in failing European states, the United States began to see Francoist Spain as the lesser of two evils. In return for America giving Spain billions of dollars in military aid between 1954 and 1989, the United States was allowed to use Spanish territory to operate air and naval bases, a valuable deterrent to the USSR and a strategic preparation for the possible outbreak of World War III. The pact helped to ease international tensions and Spain was welcomed back into the United Nations in 1955.

The pact also transformed the fate of art in Spain. As recently shown in the exhibition Campo Cerrado: Spanish Art 1939–1953, at Madrid’s Museo Reina Sofía, during Spain’s years of post-WW2 isolation, artists had grappled with how to conceive of their nation. After Picasso’s masterpiece of 1937, Guernica, had famously exposed the ruthlessness of Franco’s regime, and many artists had died or been exiled as a result of the Spanish Civil War, those who remained found themselves living in an artistic vacuum. Campo Cerrado explored how some artists submitted to Francoism, benefiting from the resurgence of academic art and propaganda, while others fell victim to repression and censorship. However, unlike other 20th-century European dictatorships – including Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union – which attempted to stamp out modern art, a variety of styles were allowed to develop in Spain, so long as the artists refrained from criticising the regime.

Franco’s tolerance of modern art presented a great opportunity for cultural diplomacy, when Spain entered into its anticommunist alliance with the United States, at the time seen as the centre of the modern art world. Keen to brush off its image as a poor and backward dictatorship, Spain put modern art at the forefront of its efforts to present the country internationally as sophisticated and progressive. In attempting to mirror America’s successful strategy of associating abstract art with the concept of freedom, the Spanish government was even willing to shamelessly appropriate the work of anti-Franco artists, such as Picasso and Joan Miró, to extend the international success of its diplomatic mission.

Not long after the US-Spain pact was signed, two exhibitions of modern US art were assembled by curators at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and presented in Spain: Modern Art in the United States in Barcelona in 1956; and The New American Painting in Madrid in 1958. In return, exhibitions of Spanish art were shown at MoMA and the Tate Gallery in London. In the midst of this cultural exchange, in December 1959, Eisenhower travelled to Madrid to meet Franco, marking the first official visit to Spain by a US president.

New Spanish Painting and Sculpture – which ran from 20 July to 28 September 1960 at MoMA and travelled to venues across the US over the next two years – was billed as “the first survey of avant-garde Spanish art to tour the United States”. And thanks to MoMA’s newly-digitised collection of exhibition documents and photos it is now open to visitors once more. Meanwhile, further stories of art in Cold War Spain can be seen in the Museo Reina Sofía’s new display of works from its permanent collection, Is the War Over? Art in a Divided World (1945–1968). You can also read more about Franco’s use of cultural diplomacy in Germán Páez’s essay on academia.edu.

Images: Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937. Oil on canvas, 349 cm × 776 cm. Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid, Spain; Installation view of New Spanish Painting and Sculpture, 20 July – 28 September 1960 at MoMA. Courtesy Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York.

Warning of the Cold War Horse

The life-size effigy of the horse stands alone in a windswept field in Jefferson County, Colorado. But this is no pettable pony. The Cold War Horse is a warning that something sinister has occurred on this remote plateau, about 15 miles north-west of Denver. Cast in fiberglass, steel and resin, the sculpture depicts the horse cloaked in a bright red hazmat suit, with a grey respirator strapped over its nose and mouth.

The Cold War Horse is wise to be dressed so strangely. Between 1952 and 1992, this area, known as Rocky Flats, was the site of a top secret factory where 70,000 highly toxic plutonium “triggers” were produced. These triggers were then dispatched to the Pantex Plant near Amarillo, Texas, where they were assembled into hydrogen bombs, to be used in the event that the Cold War suddenly became blazing hot.

Throughout its forty-year history, the Rocky Flats Plant witnessed a series of dangerous incidents, including a plutonium fire in 1957 and numerous leaks of radioactive waste into the surrounding soil and rivers. As a result of these incidents, a 4,600-acre buffer zone was imposed around the plant in 1972 and extended a couple of years later by another 4,500 acres. In the early 1980s, revelations about the activities at the plant and its environmental effects led to public outrage. In 1983, 17,000 people travelled to Rocky Flats to join hands around the 17-mile perimeter fence as part of a peace protest. Finally in 1987, the plant was raided by the FBI and its managers were fined what at the time amounted to the largest fine in history for an environmental crime. Although officially cleaned up in the early 2000s, the site is still heavily contaminated and uninhabited by humans, and has since been designated the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge.

The Cold War Horse was made by sculptor Jeff Gipe, who grew up near to Rocky Flats and whose father worked at the plant for over 20 years and now suffers from serious health problems as a result. The statue was dedicated in September 2015, ten years after the cleanup of the site was declared complete. But this is no memorial. The Cold War Horse is intended as a renegade artwork, to symbolise the locals affected by the scandal who have yet to be recompensated, and a protest against plans to construct a large housing development near the contaminated land.

However, the story doesn’t end there. Just a week after the Cold War Horse was installed, it was knocked to the ground and attacked with sledge hammers by unidentified assailants. The horse is now under repair and Gipe has set up the coldwarhorse.com website for people who would like to donate towards its reinstallation.

Image: Jeff Gipe, Cold War Horse, 2015. Image courtesy Jeff Werkheiser

Exhibition: Monster Roster

While I was in the American Midwest last month, I couldn’t resist making the journey out to the University of Chicago to see the latest exhibition at the Smart Museum of Art: Monster Roster: Existentialist Art in Postwar Chicago. The exhibition focuses on the work of a close-knit group of artists working in the Windy City between the late 1940s and the mid-1960s. The artists, who would be given the name Monster Roster only in 1959, pioneered a confrontational and deeply psychological form of art in response to the start of the Cold War. Characterised by a grotesque and surreal style, their figurative works were informed by ancient art and classical mythology, and appeared to be a world away from New York, where Abstraction Expressionism was at its peak and Pop Art was on the rise.

Regular ESPIONART readers will already be familiar with the leader of the Monster Roster, Leon Golub, who was previously introduced as one of our ‘Featured Artists’. Other members of the group included Golub’s wife Nancy Spero, alongside Cosmo Campoli, June Leaf, Dominick Di Meo, Fred Berger, and Seymour Rosofsky. Among some 60 paintings, sculptures, and works on paper, the exhibition features several works by Golub, including one of his most famous canvases, Reclining Youth. The design for this huge work was based on the ancient Greek sculpture of a dying soldier on the frieze of the Pergamon Altar, and at times Golub used a meat cleaver to scrape paint on and off the canvas. Yet despite the at times gruesome images created by the Monster Roster, Golub explained: “Other painters are tearing man apart, but not me. I’m giving him a monumental image. I want man to survive.” Meanwhile, Fred Berger wanted “to show man as a creature who is at once magnificent and terrifying” in paintings such as The Tribe.

Most of the male Monster Roster artists had served in World War II before studying at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and their visual language and themes suggest men profoundly affected by their experiences. As the introductory wall text describes, these were “dark, grotesque, searing images painted in somber earthen hues with flashes of violent color. Disembodied limbs, vacant eyes, distended figures, slashed and scraped surfaces, damaged torsos, birth pangs and death throes, icons of an existential drama.”

When the artists informally united in the late 1940s, their work stood in stark contrast to the optimistic post-war mood in the United States. Yet as the Cold War progressed, their ominous visions foreshadowed the anxiety and disorientation that was to come. Over half a decade after the end of the Monster Roster, this is the first major museum exhibition to examine their work, and to present it as the first unique Chicago style.

Monster Roster: Existentialist Art in Postwar Chicago has free admission, and continues at the Smart Museum of Art until 12 June 2016.

Image: Leon Golub, Reclining Youth, 1959. Lacquer on canvas, 200 x 415.3 cm. Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago; Fred Berger, The Tribe, 1959. Oil on canvas. Courtesy of Eva Field and James Conlon.

Japanese Painters Protesting the Cold War

The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States in August 1945 not only signalled the end of World War II, but also announced the start of the nuclear age which would be a defining aspect of the Cold War. The widespread revulsion in Japan at America’s actions would sit uncomfortably with the country’s reliance on the West for protection against the rise of communism in China, Korea, Vietnam and other neighbouring countries. After Japan agreed to enter into a security treaty with the United States in April 1952, the Allied Powers finally halted their occupation of the country, although under the terms of the agreement Japan was compelled to host a huge network of US military bases from which America waged the Cold War in Asia.

An engaging microsite published by the MIT Visualizing Cultures project tells a little-known story of four “reportage” painters working in Japan during the 1950s. Nakamura Hiroshi, Ikeda Tatsuo, Yamashita Kikuji, and Ishii Shigeo were all linked to the Japan Art Alliance, a post-war art group that advocated the creation of politically-themed realist paintings. In their works, the artists protested again Japan’s acquiescence to US domination and provided a vivid record of the difficulties faced by the Japanese people as their country entered into the Cold War.

Nakamura Hiroshi‘s paintings of the 1950s and early 1960s largely focus on the gathering protest movement against the US military presence in post-war Japan. Although he aspired to adhere to the Soviet-led art method of Socialist Realism, Nakamura’s works have a strong surrealist quality, while others have the appearance of contemporary street art.

The Allied occupation of Japan was indirectly responsible for Ikeda Tatsuo becoming an artist. As a teenager, Ikeda was forced to train as a kamikaze pilot, and although the end of the World War II saved him from having to undergo a suicide mission, as a result of this training there were restrictions on his employment in occupied Japan. Ikeda subsequently used his art to highlight how the livelihoods of other Japanese had been damaged by the US military presence. His social realist paintings show the influence of Cubism, although Ikeda also produced more conventional images when as an impoverished artist he supported himself by painting portraits of American servicemen stationed in Japan.

Yamashita Kikuji‘s post-war paintings often recalled his painful memories of being a soldier in the Japanese Imperial army, fighting in China. In the early 1950s, Yamashita briefly worked for the Japanese Communist Party to record instances of class warfare in Japan, but his surrealist paintings, which took inspiration from Salvador Dali and Hieronymus Bosch, made his work unpopular as a form of “communist” art. In works such as The Tale of New Japan, Yamashita strongly criticised America’s military presence and the corruption of the Japanese who profited from their country’s occupation. His paintings are often populated by dogs and other animals, as visual metaphors for the bestial behaviour of humans, including that of Yamashita himself: the artist never forgave himself for his participation in the torture and murder of a Chinese prisoner of war.

The last of the four artists featured on the Visualizing Cultures microsite is Ishii Shigeo. Although the artist tragically only lived to 28, when he finally succumbed to his lifelong battle with asthma, he left a large body of work. Most significant are the 15 paintings that Ishii produced between 1955 and 1957, under the collective title of Violence. These allegorical works document the psychological impact of Japan’s post-war struggles. Filled with small human figures falling and floating in sinister settings, these unsettling works depict the Japanese people as victims of the US-Japan security treaty, which the artist described as a “perfect crime”.

For a more in-depth account of these artists, I highly recommend exploring the microsite Protest Art in 1950s Japan by Linda Hoaglund, which was produced as a complement to Hoaglund’s 2010 documentary film ANPO: Art X War:

Images: Nakamura Hiroshi, Gunned Down, 1957; Ikeda Tatsuo, The Haul from the series Uchinada, 1953; Yamashita Kikuji, The Tale of New Japan, 1954; Ishii Shigeo, The Room from the series Violence, 1955–57.

Cheerful Collages of Mushroom Clouds

Terrified by the news that the Soviet Union had tested its first nuclear bomb in August 1949, the United States decided to up the ante – by going thermonuclear. On 1 November 1952, the world’s first H-bomb, codenamed Ivy Mike, was detonated on the Pacific island of Elugelab. The island was instantly transformed into a cloud of ash that reached 27 miles into the sky, and all vegetation within the path of the 3-mile-wide fireball was vaporised. After the dust had settled, all that remained was a crater over 1 mile wide that plummeted 165 feet into the seabed.

In 2010, Piotr Uklański memorialised Ivy Mike in the form of a seven-foot-long collage. The artist, who lives between Warsaw and New York, is known for satirising both the iconography of American consumerism and the visual tropes of state propaganda in Eastern Europe, toying with viewers’ expectations by investing clichéd visual tropes with new, subversive meaning. In a similarly provocative manner, his depiction of Ivy Mike juxtaposes the ominous shape of the mushroom cloud, a common symbol of disaster, with cheerful colours and a child-like technique – although the torn paper also suggests violence and destruction. The work was part of a series of collages of natural disaster and nuclear tests, with the United States’ detonation of the Castle Romeo H-bomb in 1954 also pictured.

ivy mike 2

Hyperallergic described the series as “rainbow sherbert collages of calamity,” and Uklański told the magazine: “I like the contrast of beauty and something that symbolizes a complete disaster.” The subject may have also appealed to Uklański as one of Ivy Mike’s two creators was a fellow Polish-American, mathematician Stanislaw Ulam (together with Hungarian-American physicist, Edward Teller).

The United States finally admitted to the detonation of Ivy Mike in 1954, releasing an hour-long self-congratulatory propaganda film. Yet that same year the Soviet Union once more had the upper hand in the nuclear race, having created an H-bomb which was capable of being dropped from a plane.

Piotr Uklański, Untitled (Ivy Mike), 2010. Gouache on paper, collage, torn and pasted on plywood, 217.8 × 304.8 × 10.2 cm. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

Recommended: Zimmerli Art Museum

New Jersey is the unlikely home of the world’s largest collection of Nonconformist Soviet art. Since 1991 the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, has hosted Norton T. Dodge’s incomparable collection of underground art, smuggled out of the USSR between the Khrushchev Thaw and Glasnost. The incredible story of the economics professor who became the saviour of unofficial Soviet art is the subject of John McPhee’s short but sweet book The Ransom of Russian Art.

The Dodge Collection includes over 20,000 works in all media by some 1,000 artists. Works are not confined to Russia, with examples of nonconformist art from across the Soviet republics – from Armenia and Azerbaijan to Ukraine and Uzbekistan. The Zimmerli Art Museum contains many of the underground movement’s now famous names, including Sots Art duo Komar and Melamid, the bad boy of underground abstract art Evgenii Rukhin, Khrushchev’s sculptor nemesis Ernst Neizvestny, Lianozovo Group artists Oskar Rabin and Lydia Masterkova, and Moscow Conceptualism installation artist Ilya Kabakov. The museum also holds a full-scale replica of an AptArt (apartment art) exhibition.

And if all that Soviet art wasn’t enough, there’s plenty more to see in the Zimmerli Art Museum, including a fine collection of pre-Soviet Russian art and Orthodox icons, and collections of 19th-century French art and American art from the 18th to the 21st century.

So if you find yourself in New York it’s well worth catching a bus an hour out of the metropolis to discover this hidden treasure.

Images: Top – Leonid Sokov, Lenin and Giacometti, 1990. Metal and bronze, 47.5 x 41.5 x 14.4 cm; Bottom – Erik Bulatov, Krasikov Street, 1977. Oil on canvas, 150 x 198.5 cm. © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Both: Collection Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers, Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union. Photo Jack Abraham.