Retropolis: The US hid the human suffering of Hiroshima. Then John Hersey went to Japan.
Hersey and Hiroshima are the links between two works of art exhibited in the Phillips Collection. Jacob Lawrence and the Children of Hiroshima places eight silkscreens Lawrence produced for a limited edition of Hersey’s book in 1983 in the same gallery as eight drawings by students from the school closest to Ground Zero, circa 1947. The latter were previously Displayed on-site at the American University Museum’s Hiroshima-Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Exhibition in 2015.
The children’s pictures, made with crayons and pencils donated by All Souls Church, a Unitarian congregation in Columbia Heights, contain only a hint of what happened in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Most of the drawings are peaceful scenes of children at play, along with some portraits and a depiction of a woman in a kimono. The exception is a sunny view of one of the city’s many rivers, a scene that appears generic except for the skeletal ruin now commonly called the A-Bomb Dome, visible on the far left.
The creator of the picture, 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 atomic bomb. The area included her school — Honkawa Elementary, now a peace museum — where more than 400 people died on Aug. 6.
The colored pencil drawing contains something that Lawrence’s pictures lack: green, the color of life and renewal. His prints are mainly in shades of brown and reddish-purple, punctuated by accents of blue, yellow and crimson. The palette is intentionally and appropriately eerily unnatural. Brown also dominates many of the paintings in Lawrence’s best-known series of illustrations, his “Migration Series” of 1940-41, of which Phillips owns half of the 60 plates. But in these, the color is earthier and less menacing.
Many of the children’s pictures feature faces that are largely absent from Lawrence’s prints. His subjects have skulls for heads flanked by red flesh that appears to have partially melted away. People do everyday tasks in a kind of half-life, surrounded by death. Several images include the corpses of dead birds, and a striking vignette shows six people seated on benches framed by the outline 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 paintings about World War II based on his service in the US 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 at age 13, but spent the last third of his life in Seattle, where he taught at the University of Washington (and died in 2000). It is likely that he became more familiar with Asian American culture in the Pacific Northwest.
Vibrant artist Jacob Lawrence, 82, dies
That’s not clear from the eight Hiroshima prints donated to Phillips in 2021 by NoraLee and Jon Sedmak. There is little that appears specifically Japanese in Lawrence’s work. But then again, the artist didn’t have to provide the details of the Hiroshima bombing and its aftermath; Hersey had already done that. What Lawrence adds is the heightened sense of terror that comes with realizing the suffering caused over time by radiation and by the proliferation of nuclear weapons since 1946.
If the pictures of Hiroshima schoolchildren depict innocence, they reflect Lawrence’s experience. The former assume a return to pre-nuclear normality; The latter grimly admit that this is impossible.
Jacob Lawrence and the Children of Hiroshima
Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW. 202-387-2151. phillipscollection.org.
Entry: Included in general admission price of $16; $12 for seniors; $10 for students and teachers; and free for members, children under 18, and military personnel. Masks are compulsory. This also applies to tickets with timed entry, except for members.