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Yasuo Kuniyoshi, from the photographic archives of Peter A. Juley and Son at the National Museum of American Art

Yasuo Kuniyoshi
Girl Thinking

Upside Down Table and Mask

Across the Street

The Okayama Prefectural Museum
Kuniyoshi on the Move
by Kay Itoi

Japan's museum devoted to Yasuo Kuniyoshi (1889-1953), the celebrated Japanese modernist painter who lived and worked in New York from the 1930s through the early '50s, is closing -- but the collection is going to remain on public view at the prefectural museum in Okayama in southwestern Japan, where the artist was born.

Kuniyoshi gained a certain degree of success in the U.S., in 1948 becoming the subject of the Whitney Museum's first-ever one-man retrospective of a contemporary artist. His homeland of Japan, which he left when he was 17, has been somewhat less appreciative of his work. This might be about to change.

The Okayama-based Benesse Corporation, Japan's largest provider of correspondence courses, has amassed a huge collection of Kuniyoshi's work over the last 20 years -- some 42 paintings, plus 96 drawings, sketches, prints and photographs. The collection includes as well copies of all the documents on the artist in the Smithsonian Institution Archives of American Art.

The Benesse holding includes some of Kuniyoshi's most important paintings, such as Girl Thinking (1935), Girl Wearing Bandana (1936) and Upside Down Table and Mask (1940), the last of which the company purchased from New York's Museum of Modern Art in the 1990s. Benesse chief curator Yuji Akimoto calls the Benesse works, with some understatement, "among the best Kuniyoshi collections in terms of quality and size."

The collection has been displayed at Benesse's own Yasuo Kuniyoshi Museum, located inside its headquarters building in Oakayama. Recently, however, Benesse president Soichiro Fukutake, whose father founded the firm in 1955, has moved to restructure the business. Though Benesse has been successful despite the recession, the company could face difficulties in the future, and Fukutake has decided to separate his private interests from the corporate business.

To this end, Fukutake moved to take possession of the Kuniyoshi Museum holdings himself, buying the collection from Benesse for around 2,000,000,000 last month. Closing date for Benesse's Kuniyoshi Museum was Mar. 20, 2003. Fukutake "wishes to make the collection accessible to a wider public and the academic community," says Akimoto. What's more, Fukutake has resigned as president of Benesse, and appointed an independent businessman to succeed him.

Next month, Fukutake says he will "transfer" the entire collection as a long-term loan to the Okayama Prefectural Museum, which already has 11 Kuniyoshi works. The museum plans to show selected pieces from the collection in its permanent exhibitions and to organize a large retrospective in the near future. Benesse's curators are working closely with their counterparts at the OPM, though neither Fukutake or other Benesse employees are taking formal posts there.

While leaving his beloved Kuniyoshi collection in the hands of the Okayama museum, Fukutake, one of Japan's wealthiest and most visible art collectors, remains busy with his art projects. He is overseeing the construction of a Tadao Ando-designed museum on the Naoshima island, which floats in Seto Inland Sea some 600 kilometers west of Tokyo. Benesse bought a part of this island in 1987 and has built a museum and a little hotel, alongside a campsite, also designed by Ando. Now he is adding a second museum, slated to open in July 2004. It will display some of Fukutake's private collection, including five water lily paintings by Claude Monet.

KAY ITOI is author of In Search of Lost Masterpieces (Jiji Press, 2001).