Retropolis: The United States hid the human suffering of Hiroshima. Then John Hersey went to Japan.
Hersey and Hiroshima are the links between two sets of works of art exhibited in the Phillips Collection. “Jacob Lawrence and the Children of Hiroshima” places eight serigraphs Lawrence produced for a 1983 limited edition of Hersey’s book in the same gallery as eight drawings from around 1947 by students at the school nearest Ground Zero. These were previously shown locally in the American University Museum’s “Hiroshima-Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Exhibit” in 2015.
The pictures of the children, made with crayons and crayons donated by All Souls Church, a Unitarian congregation in Columbia Heights, contain only a clue to what happened in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Most of the drawings are peaceful scenes of children playing, as well as some portraits and a rendering of a woman in a kimono. The exception is a sunlit view of one of the city’s many rivers, a scene that looks generic except for the skeletal ruin now generally referred to as the Atomic Bomb Dome, visible at the far left.
The creator of the photo, who was 9 or 10 when she took it, may not have known that a T-shaped bridge in this neighborhood was the exact target of the plane that dropped the bomb nuclear. The area included his school – Honkawa Elementary, now a peace museum – where more than 400 people died on August 6.
The pencil drawing contains something that Lawrence’s photos lack: green, the color of life and renewal. Its prints are mostly in shades of brown and reddish purple, punctuated with touches of blue, yellow and blood red. The palette is, intentionally and appropriately, oddly unnatural. Brown also dominates many of the paintings in Lawrence’s best-known set of illustrations, his “Migration Series” of 1940-41, half of the 60 panels of which belong to the Phillips. But in these, the color is more earthy and less ominous.
Many images of children include faces, which are largely absent from Lawrence’s prints. His subjects have skulls for heads, flanked by red flesh that seems partly melted. People perform daily tasks in a sort of half-life, surrounded by death. Several images include the corpses of dead birds, and a striking vignette depicts six people seated on benches, framed by the silhouette of a charred black tree in the foreground.
While most of Lawrence’s work focused on the black experience, the African-American artist had previously painted World War II paintings, based on his service in the United States Coast Guard during that conflict. (He served with the first racially integrated crew in Coast Guard history.) Lawrence was born in Atlantic City in 1917 and moved to Harlem when he was 13, but spent the last third of his life in Seattle, where he went to teach at the University. of Washington (and died in 2000). It is likely that he became familiar with Asian American culture while in the Pacific Northwest.
Living artist Jacob Lawrence, 82, dies
It’s not obvious on Hiroshima’s eight draws, which were given to the Phillips in 2021 by NoraLee and Jon Sedmak. There is little that appears specifically Japanese in Lawrence’s work. But then the artist did not have to provide the details of the bombing of Hiroshima and its effects; Hersey had done it before. What Lawrence adds is the heightened sense of dread that accompanies the recognition of the suffering caused over time by radiation and because of the proliferation of nuclear weapons since 1946.
If the photos of Hiroshima schoolchildren represent innocence, those of Lawrence reflect experience. The former assume a return to pre-nuclear normality; the latter grimly acknowledge that it is impossible.
Jacob Lawrence and the Children of Hiroshima
Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW. 202-387-2151. phillipscollection.org.
Admission: Included with $16 general admission; $12 for seniors; $10 for students and teachers; and free for members, under 18s and the military. Masks are mandatory. Same goes for timed tickets, except for members.