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Between Two Worlds

Joseph Roth, one of the last dreamers of restoring the Austro-Hungarian Empire and possibly a convert to Roman Catholicism, died in drunken exile in Paris on the eve of World War II. Lev Nussimbaum, aka Kurban Said, aka Essad Bey, died poor and almost forgotten in Positano, Italy, in 1942. His time had run out. His offer to write Mussolini’s biography was rebuffed. He was given some money to record fascist propaganda in Persian for the Fascist Colonial Service. But despite his posing as an American, his Jewish identity was known. If he had not died of illness, he might well have ended, like his father, in a death camp in Poland. Reiss quotes a sentence, later crossed out, near the end of Nussimbaum’s last manuscript: “The author of this book is dead. He was the victim of an airplane crash that occurred when he wanted to cross the short stretch that separates southern Europe from Asia.”


Self-conscious efforts to merge different traditions often end in forced hybrids, where tradition is little more than superficial decoration hiding ill-digested ideas. One artist who succeeded brilliantly in absorbing Asian and Western influences was the American sculptor and designer Isamu Noguchi. This was not always recognized in his time, when both American and Japanese critics sometimes dismissed him as being too alien. The most vicious attack on his work, launched in 1935 by a reviewer for the New York Sun, ended with the words: “Once an Oriental always an Oriental, it appears.”

I’m not sure it would be fair to describe Noguchi as an Orientalist. He was certainly fascinated by Asian cultures, especially Japanese, but also Indian, Chinese, and Indonesian. Born in the US, partly raised in Japan, apprenticed to Brancusi in Paris, and an indefatigable world traveler until the end of his life, Noguchi was not so much interested in Asian scholarship or Oriental role-playing (though there was a bit of that) as in reimagining Asian and Western traditions to find his own artistic style. This endeavor spilled over into his life, much of which was spent crossing borders, while imagining what it was like to belong somewhere. His friend Buckminster Fuller recalled Noguchi’s “stated envy of the natives of various lands who seemed to him to ‘belong….’”

One of the many merits of Masayo Duus’s biography of Noguchi is her lively treatment of Noguchi’s estranged father, Yonejiro (“Yone”) Noguchi, a Japanese poet who made his name in American literary circles in the 1890s by writing English poems with a highly exotic flavor. He lived in San Francisco and New York, where he met Isamu’s mother, a bookish young woman named Leonie Gilmour, who transformed Yone’s ungrammatical Japonaiserie into coherent English poetry. There is no hint of exoticism or incoherence in Duus’s own prose, but she appears to have an equally profitable arrangement with her husband, the Stanford historian Peter Duus, who translated her book, which first appeared in Japanese, into excellent English.

Living abroad turned Yonejiro’s thoughts increasingly to his homeland. A fellow Japanese wrote to an American friend: “Yone is most queer boy among all Nipponese…. He is dreamer. Yes, he are [sic] dreaming always of his sweet dream, mostly of his native country.” When he did finally return to Japan in 1905—without Leonie and their child—he was treated as much as an exotic there as he had been in the US, though initially with much less success. He only began to write his poems in Japanese sixteen years later. One poem begins:

When Japanese read my Japanese poetry they say,
“His Japanese poems are not so good but perhaps his English poems are better.”
When Westerners read my English poetry, they say,
“I can’t bear to read his English poems, but his Japanese poems must be superb.”

Perhaps as a reaction to being a cultural misfit, Yone turned to extreme chauvinism in the 1930s, producing books with titles like Mysterious Japan and New Japanism.

Although Isamu lived in Japan between 1906 and 1918, he saw little of his father, who had started another family with a Japanese wife even before Isamu and his mother arrived. Isamu resented his father for the rest of his life, yet adopted his name (instead of Gilmour) when he became an artist in New York, as a way perhaps, in the words of Masayo Duus, of “flaunting the ‘exotic’ blood that ran in his veins.” Whatever one makes of his poetry, Yonejiro was a pioneer in expressing his Japanese sensibility in a Western medium. At various points in his career, his son tried to do the reverse, adapting his sculptural techniques to Japanese-style pottery, paper lanterns, and gardens. As he put it later: “I am a fusion of East and West, but I want to transcend both worlds.”

First he had to deal with rejection, however, not just by his father, but by the societies that formed him. He was bullied at his Japanese elementary school for being a stupid gaijin (foreigner). But he was no less of an outsider at the English-speaking Catholic school in Yokohama. He fared better at another Catholic school, in Indiana, where he was taken under the wing of the first of many father figures, Dr. Edward Rumely, who liked the “little Jap.” Isamu, Dr. Rumely remembered, “was much interested in wood-work, wanted to go to the wood-shop. I sent him, with flying colors.”

This was in 1918. In 1941, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Noguchi was a misfit once again. Rejected as a useless “half-breed” by the American authorities to whom he had offered his services, he volunteered to move to a relocation camp for Japanese-Americans in Arizona, where he proposed to teach handicrafts. His identification with the imprisoned citizens of Japanese descent was short-lived. They were mostly rural people. He was a celebrated New York artist. And besides, his irresistible sex appeal to some of the married women in the camp was causing trouble. His release was a relief for everyone, including Noguchi himself, who recalled feeling “completely alone.”

He had, in fact, felt more at home in Paris in the 1920s, where he worked in Brancusi’s studio, had numerous affairs, and met fellow expatriates such as Alexander Calder and the Parisian-Japanese painter Fujita. Brancusi was an ideal mentor. His style, a seamless fit of Romanian folk art and sleek modernism, was to be a lifelong influence on Noguchi, who tried to develop a modern style of his own that owed something to the craftsmanship and love of nature he had observed as a child in Japan.

His first trip to Japan, as an adult, was a mixed experience. He set off with a Guggenheim fellowship in 1930. When he left Japan the following year, he had refreshed his love of traditional Japanese art, but felt oppressed by the general atmosphere of militarism, and by his father, who felt ambivalent about his half-gaijin son and was moving into his most chauvinist phase.

When Noguchi returned to Japan in 1950, however, things could not have been more different. Even though the country was barely emerging from its wartime ruins, Japanese artists and intellectuals felt liberated from the militarist regime to which some of them had lent their artistic support. There was a hunger for new ideas, experimentation, and modern art, and Noguchi, who could barely speak Japanese anymore, was welcomed as a kind of savior from the West.

As an American,” he later recalled, “I expected to be treated like a foreigner…. Yet there was an eager approach to brotherhood, which other Americans, too, can attest to. I was immediately swamped by all the artists, and their various groups seeking my participation. I felt like the pigeon harbinger after the Deluge.” He actually thought that the Japanese infatuation with the new had gone too far. It was no good, he said in interviews with Japanese reporters, to copy everything that came from abroad. “To be authentic and original is to be modern. Therefore if something in Japan is authentic and original it is even more modern than anything imported from abroad.”

Even though this may not have been what Japanese artists in their rush for things foreign wished to hear, they were at least willing to listen, for here was a famous man from America, who had the added attraction of bearing a famous Japanese name. This was also the beginning of Noguchi’s Oriental fantasy. Back in New York, he met a Japanese movie actress, named Shirley Yamaguchi, also known as Yamaguchi Yoshiko, or, during the war, as Li Xianglan. She was a bit of an Oriental fantasy herself.

As Li Xianglan (Ree Koran in Japanese), she had specialized in playing Chinese parts in wartime propaganda movies about Japan’s benevolent efforts to “liberate” Asia. Her parts were mostly of Chinese girls who fell in love with brave Japanese soldiers or enterprising Japanese pioneers in occupied China. After the war, as Shirley Yamaguchi, she had a short-lived career in Hollywood productions playing Japanese women who fell in love with brave American GIs. When Noguchi met her, she was being squired around New York by Yul Brynner, who was playing the Siamese monarch in The King and I on Broadway.

Shirley and Isamu recognized fellow misfits as soon as they saw each other. They got married in 1951, and moved to an old farmhouse tucked away in a pretty valley of rice fields and thatched-roof houses on the edge of the old samurai capital, Kamakura. This picturesque spot could have served as an open movie set of Old Japan. The landlord was a famous potter, named Kitaoji Rosanjin, who lived in the exquisitely sober manner of a traditional Japanese aesthete. He was so exacting that even his toilet had to be just right: a fine ceramic urn filled with fresh cedar leaves. Such banalities as washing hanging out to dry were never allowed to spoil the pristine view. A plaque above the gate to the cluster of houses where he and the Noguchis lived bore the stylishly drawn phrase Mukyo, “World of Dreams.”

Having found yet another father figure, Noguchi copied Rosanjin’s rather dream-like way of life, eating fresh Japanese food served in elegant bowls, some of which he had made in his traditional kiln, bathing in a wooden tub, dressing in kimonos, sleeping on tatami, and decorating his farmhouse with finely chosen Japanese objects. He insisted that his wife wear nothing but a kimono and straw sandals. One day, when she came back from the movie studio in plastic sandals, because the traditional straw ones made her feet bleed, Noguchi flew into a rage at this intolerable show of vulgarity.

Although he doted on Noguchi, Rosanjin was a bit of a tyrant, and the life in this rarefied retreat from the mod-ern world became wearisome to Ya-maguchi. And in fact Noguchi could not live this dream forever either. Indeed, even in those early days of Japanese-American “brotherhood,” acceptance of the foreigner was far from total. Noguchi’s experiments with traditional paper lanterns, the “light sculptures” which are still sold all over the world, baffled Japanese critics, who either ignored or ridiculed them. And in 1952, Noguchi’s beautiful design for the Hiroshima atom bomb memorial, the Arch of Peace, commissioned by Tange Kenzo, was rejected at the last minute by a committee of distinguished experts. The reason may have been nothing more than a fit of professional pique because the gentlemen of the committee had not been sufficiently consulted, but Noguchi took it personally. His Japanese idyll was over, at least for a while. And so, four years later, was his marriage to Shirley—Yoshiko, Li Koran—Yamaguchi.

In fact, however, Noguchi could never stay away from Japan for long, and in the late 1960s he built his own paradise in a traditional stonecutters’ village on the Inland Sea coast of Shikoku. It was there, in Mure, that Noguchi’s modernist, Western sensibility found its perfect complement in the traditional skills of Izumi Masatoshi, whose family had been making stone ornaments for centuries. Izumi, the consummate craftsman, learned how to anticipate Noguchi’s wishes, and knew how to carry them out. Out of their extraordinary relationship, based on body language and a shared love of stone, came some of Noguchi’s greatest works.

They are not exactly abstract. Noguchi was not interested in “purely cold abstraction,” he once told an art critic. “Art has to have some humanly touching and memorable quality.” Rather, Noguchi’s work on stone, a jagged edge here, a polished ridge there, adds a human touch to the material without dominating or diminishing its natural qualities, a bit like Japanese cooking, in fact, where highly sophisticated skills are needed to make the most of natural flavors.

Some of the finest examples can be seen in the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City. The model for the Hiroshima memorial is there, and so are such masterpieces as the black granite The Origin. Although Noguchi’s life in Mure, where he spent part of each year in a beautifully reconstructed eighteenth-century merchant’s house, could be described as an Orientalist idyll, his work had neither the scholarly nor the frivolous, let alone the imperialist, elements commonly associated with the term. He really had found a form that “transcended” cultures, even as it was rooted in them. Unlike Lev Nussimbaum and similar fantasists, who pretended to be something they were not, Noguchi, in his art, had found a kind of individual authenticity. Perhaps this had something to do with sex.

Although Nussimbaum, with his mysterious bearing and exotic posturing, had no trouble attracting German girls, he almost always rejected them when things became too intimate. Sex to him appears to have been rather a beastly business that was best avoided. Noguchi, on the other hand, never passed up an opportunity. Anaïs Nin and Frida Kahlo were among the many women with whom he had intimate relations. Sex, he said, is “very important to give you a feeling of being alive. There are frequent changes in the history of the human race but one thing that never changes is sex.”

It is a pity you are not allowed to touch the polished granite or marble sculptures displayed in the Noguchi Museum, for they have an extraordinarily tactile quality. Instead of finding refuge, then, in dream palaces of Arabian princes and Oriental Shangri-Las, Noguchi pared his vision down to a basic sensuality, which owed something to Brancusi and European modernism, and something to Japanese traditional craftsmanship, but mostly to his own extraordinary talent and sensibility, which allowed him to find warm life in the hardest of stones.

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