|« Back to CONNECT|
Artist: Yasuo Kuniyoshi, American, born Japan, 1893 - 1953
Medium:Oil on canvas
Dimensions: Sight dimensions: 42 x 25 in. (106.68 x 63.5 cm) Framed dimensions: 50 3/4 x 33 5/8 in. (128.905 x 85.408 cm)
Credit Line: Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas Art Association Purchase Fund, Deaccession Funds/City of Dallas (by exchange) in honor of Dr. Steven A. Nash
Object Number: 1988.22
Bather with Cigarette presents a curvaceous female swimmer at the seashore. A small clamshell, a symbol of female sexuality, rests behind her. This painting is one of Yasuo Kuniyoshi’s numerous experiments in the subject of modern swimmers, many of which he executed during summers spent at a Maine art colony. This figure boldly flaunts her swimsuit and cigarette, expressing the newly relaxed behavioral codes associated with trips to the seaside. The simplified, stylized figure and flattened sense of space in Bather with Cigarette are characteristic of Kuniyoshi’s early work.
Born in Japan, Yasuo Kuniyoshi moved to the United States in 1906. By the 1920s, Kuniyoshi had studied art in Los Angeles and New York and was able to support himself with his photography; he spent his evenings painting. Numerous awards and exhibitions during the 1920s and 1930s elevated Kuniyoshi’s status as one of the major American social realists—painters who presented naturalistic scenes of American life, sometimes as a means of social commentary.
Kuniyoshi’s work is often categorized into three phases. Paintings during the 1920s reflect an interest in surrealism and American folk art, with stylized figures and a distorted sense of space. A sense of fantasy connects his literary and narrative subjects, landscapes, and figure paintings. During the 1930s and war years, the second phase of Kuniyoshi’s work, he focuses on the figure and expressions of alienation, possibly a reflection of the depression-era mood. After World War II, Kuniyoshi’s palette becomes brighter and more colorful, and his use of angles creates a style that is more abstract than art of previous phases. His earliest phase is often considered his strongest.
Women’s beachwear underwent a major revolution at the turn of the century. In the one hundred years between 1900 and 2000, bathing suits shrunk from fully covered Victorian garb, complete with stockings and shoes, to revealing string bikinis that can be found in today’s department stores.
During the 1920s, swimwear for women looked similar to swimwear for men, as the androgynous and tubular body was in vogue. The boxy shape of a 1920s flapper dress also accentuated this body type. Cutting-edge beach fashion often included a two-piece suit, usually wool, that consisted of a tank top extending to mid-thigh and matching or coordinating shorts.
Such beachwear, however, was controversial. Victorian-style swimsuits of the 19th century “appropriately” covered women’s bodies, but they dangerously hindered underwater movement. New styles of swimwear allowed women more mobility and safety while swimming. Yet, their exposed upper arms, upper thighs, armpits, and backs were considered indecent and even vulgar by those who upheld Victorian-era morals. During the twenties, there were numerous incidents of women arrested at public beaches and pools for indecent exposure. Kuniyoshi’s figure sports one of these “scandalous” new swimsuits.
1920s beachwear on a postcard, from Wikipedia Commons.
For many Americans, the seaside became a popular escape from the rapid industrialization and modernization during the 19th century. Many artists in the late 19th century formed artistic communities in coastal towns. Artists of the 1920s continued to embrace the idea of living and working with fellow artists in a seaside community, away from the hustle and bustle of city life. Together, these artists searched for modern ways to present the seaside in their art.
In 1917 Kuniyoshi met artist and teacher Hamilton Easter Field, who brought him to the coastal artist colony he had developed in Ogunquit, Maine. Kuniyoshi spent his summers in this sleepy town on Maine’s coast through the mid-1920s. Bather with Cigarette, along with other paintings featuring the female bather, was painted in the artist colony of Ogunquit.
During the 1920s, a variety of factors contributed to a generation fixated on the healthy body. First, the death and destruction caused by World War I scarred many Americans. Second, the effect of industrialization on society was a serious concern. Third, visual reminders—through popular advertisements and movies—of what constituted physical perfection permeated 1920s society. The term “clean” was commonly used to refer to an ideal physicality by artists and writers.
Many 1920s artists were interested in presenting the figure at its full potential, as fit, strong, and clean. The bather or modern swimmer—sleek, athletic, and exposed—emerged during the decade as the most appropriate example of the clean, ideal body. While Kuniyoshi’s figure in Bather with Cigarette does not exemplify the ideal physique as suggested by 1920s society, her lack of self-consciousness of her exposed body reflects the heightened interest in the body.
Many new social and legal freedoms were granted to women during the 1920s. Not only did women receive the right to vote with the 19th Amendment in 1920, but it also became socially acceptable for women to cut their hair into bobs, shorten their skirts, and wear trousers and makeup. Women also engaged in other activities previously deemed inappropriate, such as driving, dancing, and smoking cigarettes.
In a sense, the 1920s liberated women from the strict social mores of Victorian times. The women who embraced their new freedoms were often referred to as flappers. With her cigarette and bold expression, Kuniyoshi’s bather celebrates the relaxed behavioral codes of the decade.
1. Describe this figure’s pose. Try to mimic her position. Why do you think Kuniyoshi posed his figure in this way?
2. During the 1920s, swimming and spending time at the beach emerged as popular pastimes for many Americans. Swimming was an example of an American leisure activity or pastime that reflected the new, relaxed codes of behavior. What are popular activities or pastimes today? What might they suggest about society?
3. The notion of “liberation” characterized the 1920s. What does liberation mean to you? How do the new swimsuit designs of the 1920s represent liberation?
1. Research the history of swimsuits or another article of clothing. How has that article changed over time? Make a poster illustrating the history of your article of clothing.
2. The figure’s bold choice of swimsuit reflects the liberated values of 1920s society. Compare Bather with a Cigarette to the Ndebele Cape (linage). How do these articles of clothing represent societal values? What do our clothes say about us today?
3. Create a narrative about the story leading up to this image. Why is this figure on the beach? Does she live there? Is she waiting for someone? What happens next?
5. Kuniyoshi painted a series of bathers in the artist colony of Ogunquit. Pick an object or person that you find interesting and create a series of drawings, looking at your subject from different angles, at different times of day, in different settings. Journal about the experience. How does drawing one subject in multiple ways affect your understanding of that object or person?
Carbone, Teresa. Youth and Beauty: Art of the American Twenties. New York: Skira Rizzoli; Brooklyn : Brooklyn Museum, 2011.
Myers, Jane E. Wolf, Tom. The Shores of a Dream: Yasuo Kuniyoshi's Early Work in America. Fort Worth: Amon Carter Museum, 1996.
Chang, Gordon H., Mark Dean Johnson, and Paul J. Karlstrom, eds. Asian American Art: A History, 1850-1970. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008.
Lencek, Lena., and Gideon Bosker. Making Waves: Swimsuits and the Undressing of America. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1989.
Denenberg, Thomas, Amy Kurtz Lansing, and Susan Danly. Call of the Coast: Art Colonies of New England. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.
Leismann, Burkhard, and Martina Padberg, eds. Intimacy: Baden in der Kunst (Bathing in Art). Ahlen, Germany: Kunstmuseum Ahlen; Koln: Wienand, 2010.
These archives include digitized primary source material related to Yasuo Kuniyoshi.
This teacher resource explores Yasuo Kuniyoshi.
This resource provides lesson plans and resources for teaching about America during the 1920s.
This website explores a variety of aspects of the 1920s through text, photos, and video.
Create a montage with popular photos of the Jazz Age.