Aug. 15, 1945. Nine days after the U.S. military dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Toshiko Akamatsu, a 33-year-old artist, arrived in the city to join her husband, Iri Maruki, who had rushed there a few days earlier to check on his family. The air smelled of rotten flesh. The city was a disorienting wreck. In other circumstances, Akamatsu would have sketched her surroundings with fervor, taken notes, tried to remember everything. Not this time.

The Art of Persistence, by Toshiko Akamatsu
Translated by Charlotte Eubanks
344 pages

Three years later, Akamatsu and Maruki, who was also an artist, began producing hundreds of sketches of naked, charred and deformed bodies. They transposed some of their artwork on eight panels spanning seven meters, with Akamatsu first sketching a form, then Maruki filling it with ink. They repeated the process several times until a haunting parade of zombie-like creatures emerged, hanging between life and death. This became “Ghosts,” the first of 15 works produced over three decades that depicted the horrors of the atomic bomb. All are now on permanent view at the Maruki Gallery for the Hiroshima Panels, in Saitama Prefecture.

The initial response of critics was mixed. The public’s reception, however, was not. Upon seeing the panels, many wept. Others prayed or made offerings. Interest was considerable, but until the end of the American occupation of Japan in 1952, they had to be exhibited discreetly, without much fanfare or advance notice to avoid censorship. Still, from 1950 to 1951, the first three panels in the series were seen by almost 650,000 people.

The couple often traveled with their paintings. Akamatsu, the more extroverted of the two, provided explanations, prodded visitors about their war experiences and shared her own. What the artists learned during these sessions, they poured into creating additions to the stirring series. These interactions became “a hallmark of (their) artistic practice,” writes Charlotte Eubanks in a new critical study of Akamatsu’s life. This approach “anticipated ‘direct action painting’ of later avant-garde groups such as Gutai.”

Until these paintings, though, Akamatsu’s career had been mostly unremarkable. Born into a family of Hokkaido colonists in 1912, she moved to Tokyo in her late teens to study Western art. She taught for a while in an all-girls school, but then moved to Moscow to work as a governess. She returned to Tokyo in 1941 and spent the rest of the war years illustrating children’s books.

This sounds innocent, but it was not: Many of these books glorified the colonial policies of Japan and its military expansion across Asia. Akamatsu later regretted that part of her career, and despite her post-war high-profile role as a peace activist, it took decades before she was able to speak publicly about it. When she did, however, she minced no words: “I am a war criminal,” she said. This will strike some as hyperbole, but it does illustrate the anguish that many artists of Akamatsu’s generation felt in trying to come to terms with the role they played as part of Japan’s propaganda machine.

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