Tanaka Memorial depicts the Prime Minister Tanaka Giichi in the late 1920s, kneeling before the Emperor Hirohito, the Empress, and a monk, as he presents to them an official memorial marked with the Chinese characters “Mainland Policy.” Tanaka deconstructs his radical ideas for invading China contained within the document, its contents manifested upon the canvas in a highly imaginative form. By the clues of their clothing, the three larger figures on the canvas can be interpreted as representations of China, the Soviet Union, and the United States. They are being approached from behind and surrounded by three sword-wielding soldiers who are symbols of Japanese militarism. This scene clearly illustrates imperial Japan’s voracious ambition to conquer and rule the world. Not only did Tanaka Memorial lay bare the ambition for violent expansion in Japanese militarism, it contained a prophecy about the Second World War, an early warning about what would emerge from the unrest and tension that was already brewing across the globe.
Tanaka Memorial has been included in many public exhibitions in the United States, including at the John Reed Club in New York in 1932 for an exhibition titled “The Social Viewpoint in Art.” The John Reed Club was a leftist literary organization that believed “the artist ought not remain solitary, nor act as a bystander in the disputes of the world.” This sentiment formed the premise for the exhibition, in the hopes that artistic conversation could be elevated to the societal level. The profound social elements contained within Tanaka Memorial reflect the artist’s originality and political acumen, crystallizing the collective social anxiety onto the canvas. This demonstration was in perfect harmony with the exhibition’s energetic theme. One can see how the artist’s efforts at establishing social subject matters within his art came early, as did his desire to use art as a vehicle for social expression.
The Birth of Diamondism
In the tumultuous period between the two World Wars, Yun Gee’s heart and attention remained in his motherland. Wielding his creative energies, he endeavored to make a contribution to his birthplace. In the art circles of 1930s New York, mural art had become very popular, the form being particularly amenable to public penetration. The Mexican left-wing artist Diego Rivera stood at the helm of this movement, using his mural creations to stimulate the public conversation around social crises. His works effectively delivered a prodigious visual and conceptual impact upon viewers. As an overseas Chinese, Yun Gee was the target of much discrimination, and in this aspect, the social values and aesthetic perspective imbued within the murals resonated with the artist. Yun Gee naturally adopted elements of social realism into his personal artistic language, a pursuit that eventually culminated in works like Tanaka Memorial, works that are rich in both psychological and conceptual content.
Yun Gee’s artistic journey can broadly be divided into the “San Francisco Period,” the “Paris Period,” and the “New York Period.” The themes of the works created during Yun Gee’s “New York Period” draw more closely to social realism than in the past, and in their forms, they cleave closely to the thinking of the modernists. Characteristics of Synchronism can be found in the artist’s works from the “San Francisco Period,” which, combined with the inspiration he derived from Surrealism during his “Paris Period,” formed the artist’s own school: Diamondism. Tanaka Memorial is composed of two separate physical spaces, dividing the top and bottom. Its visual effect is strikingly dream-like, the canvas seemingly split between two parallel space-time environments. In this way, time and space, reality and fantasy intertwine with each other. Yun Gee has imbued large amounts of his own subjectivity within the painting, while at the same time, utilized elements of Freud’s theories on dreams and emotion. The human figures appear in a warped and distorted form, exhibiting not simply the body’s athleticism, but invoking the surrealism and exaggerated forms that appear in the realm of dreams. Using the deconstruction techniques of Cubism, Yun Gee disassembles each form into small geometric networks, like the lapidary surfaces of a diamond, clear and meticulous.
As an Asian artist living in New York, Yun Gee not only actively established his own artistic theories, carrying grand aspirations of establishing a school of thought, he was equally unflinching in demonstrating his concern with sensitive topics of politics and ethnic relations. Tanaka Memorial fully illustrates the transcendence of Yun Gee’s art beyond the purely aesthetic. Instead, he courageously carves out the face of an era, its social realities and its psychological manifestations. The work possesses a magnificent and surging confidence, an artistic charm whose radiance can only be compared to that of a diamond.
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