A Coke and a Smile: Tsunehisa Kimura’s ‘Americanism’

 Exhibit / September 15, 2020

Americanism, 1982

Object Name: Americanism 
Maker and Year: Tsunehisa Kimura, 1982
Object Type: Photomontage
Description: (K.E. Roberts)

Unlike his younger compatriots Shusei Nagaoka, Hajime Sorayama, Eizin Suzuki, and Hiroshi Nagai, all of whom broke into the American illustration market with glistening airbrushed futures and breezy, pastel-colored beach scenes, Tsunehisa Kimura’s output was absurd, darkly surreal, and often apocalyptic. He remembered the devastation wrought by the war, and aimed his photomontage squarely at imperialism, colonialism, and, during the 1980s, a locked-and-loaded America whose leaders were playing an increasingly dangerous game that might have enveloped the entire globe.

Kimura’s most recognized piece is probably Waterfall, circa 1979, which shows Manhattan beset by, or rather integrated with,  Niagara Falls. The scene evokes disaster, but there’s something serene about it too—the riotous natural world and the built environment appear to commune, as is the goal in traditional Japanese architecture; not so in America, where we build things to keep nature—including other people—out. New York is frequently Kimura’s muse: New York encased in crackling ice; New York encased in fire at the end of the world (or is it the violent beginning of the world?); an ocean liner (is it the Titanic?) stands in for the Hindenburg, running aground on the Empire State Building.

There’s nothing serene about Kimura’s cover to the 1984 Midnight Oil LP Red Sails in the Sunset, either, showing a bombed-out, scorched-earth Sydney. A simmering red sun settles in the dust, similar to the black sun that precedes the atomic explosion in Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira (1982-1990). And his cover for Space Circus’s Fantastic Arrival (1979), where American astronauts caper about on the Moon—while on fire—is similarly uncomfortable. Waterfall, in various edits, has also appeared on several LP covers.

Americanism is a pointed critique of both WWII-era (the photos are from the ’40s) and ’80s America, consumed with consuming and not much else, though the world (including Hiroshima and Nagasaki) may burn. The ironic nonchalance of the juxtaposition is, once again, striking. The Statue of Liberty is drowned (a long-standing visual motif in sci-fi) in a 1977 photo, and an untitled piece from 1984 shows the noble lady once again, this time hurtling over (or towards) the New York skyline under the power of six ICBMs—which huddle beneath her skirts!

Kimura’s work was collected in 1979’s appropriately titled Visual Scandals by Photomontage, as far as I know the only such collection published in the US.

4 thoughts on “A Coke and a Smile: Tsunehisa Kimura’s ‘Americanism’

  1. The rocket under the Statue of Liberty’s skirts in the third illustration appears to be a Soviet R-7/Soyuz rocket’s first stage with an extra booster edited onto the corner. Still an ICBM, the first one ever built in fact, just not an American one. I guess this doesn’t really matter, or effect the symbolism of the image much. I just like pointing out facts about rockets. Good post, I’d never head of this artist before.

  2. Thanks for turning me on to this artist! I love doing photocollage, and Photoshop (combined with internet image search) has been an absolute game changer. I’d say that the only downside is that you lose the random limitations set by the images you had access to, and the inability to alter scale, that were inherent in the old process. Such limitations can often help the artist plagued by “analysis paralysis” triggered by unlimited choice, and force more creative thinking in composing an image.

    This post has made me realize that I could greatly benefit from some research into artists who mastered the form, so thank you for that!

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