Back to the Future

Isamu Noguchi was twenty-six in 1930 when he traveled to Japan, via China, in search of his father, but also more generally, in a word more commonly used then than now, of the Orient. He had just spent two years in Paris, as the assistant of Constantin Brancusi, and in New York, where he had held his first one-man show of abstract sculptures in stone and sheet metal. From the centers of modernism, then, to a troubled Asian nation about to expand its military power. It was not the best of times to go.

The mood in Tokyo was personified by Isamu’s father, Yone, whom he had not seen since he was a child. Noguchi Yonejiro (“Yone”) began his career as a modernist poet who knew Yeats and Pound, published in English, and had established a reputation in the United States as a Westernized exotic. He struck up a relationship in New York with Leonie Gilmour, his American assistant, but returned to Japan before the child they conceived was born. Like other Japanese modernists, who had turned to Western culture with the ferocity of converts, Yone turned back to his native land with the vengeance of a disillusioned student. His wartime poetry bore such titles as “Slaughter Them! The Americans and the English Are Our Enemies!”

So it was not surprising that Isamu’s announcement of a visit to Tokyo in 1930 was less than welcome. This strange half-American son who insisted on bearing the family name was an embarrassment to Yone. Isamu, however, was obsessed by the father who had abandoned his mother and himself twice, first in America and then in Japan. All his life he wished to reconnect with the land, not of his birth (which was in Los Angeles), but of his childhood, spent in Japan until 1918, after which he was banished to a high school in Indiana and renamed Sam Gilmour.

Still, Yone did the right thing, received his son, albeit without warmth, and introduced him to various artists in Tokyo, some of whom shared Yone’s nationalistic fervor. The most famous was Takamura Kotaro, a sculptor and poet who had lived in New York, London, and Paris in the first decade of this century. Takamura had not only been a devotee of European culture, intoxicated by Matisse and Rodin, but had written violent diatribes against his fellow Japanese: “Monkey-like, foxlike, squirrel-like, gudgeon-like, minnow-like, potsherd-like, gargoyle-faced Japanese!”

Confronted by the nationalist mood, Isamu did what he often did when faced with cultural conflicts: he turned to the ancient past, in this case, the temples and museums of Kyoto, where he found particular solace in Buddhist rock gardens and fifth-century Haniwa …

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