On a rainy summer night in 1948, Iri and Toshi Maruki realized they would have to paint Hiroshima.
The Marukis were living on a small potato farm outside Tokyo. Farm work and clean air had helped Toshi recover from the radiation sickness she had contracted in Hiroshima, where the artists spent the month following the atomic-bomb attack. And the couple had begun to resume their normal lives as artists.
Three years of peace had buoyed the Japanese art community, and many painters were working with a spirit of optimism and rebirth. The Marukis attempted to follow suit, painting portraits of boys and girls. Young models came to the farm in the early morning to sit for an hour-long sketching session. The youths seemed to have totally recovered from the war, Toshi recalls, and were full of enthusiasm for a new Japan. The Marukis tried to portray this spirit, but a darkness kept intruding on their paintings.
"Inexplicably," Toshi wrote later, "we ended up painting grief-stricken faces. No shining light would come from within. There was an inexpungeable wound at the core of the unconscious heart, and it appeared on the canvas without the artist willing it.
"We truly wanted to paint cheerful Japanese faces, but we would first have to communicate the nature of that darkness. We resolved to paint Hiroshima. It was not clear which of us first suggested the idea. We were of one mind. We trembled and held each other close."
The Marukis embarked that night on an artistic journey that has continued for almost four decades. They were compelled to return in their minds to the terrifying hellfires of Hiroshima, and to examine unflinchingly the scenes of unrelieved suffering they witnessed in the weeks following the blast.
After two years of preliminary studies, the Marukis completed in 1950 the first of fifteen monumental (six-by-twenty five foot) paintings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
These murals provide a startling record of the Bomb, rendered with an authenticity that could only be attained by witnesses to its effects. We may never get closer than these paintings to an understanding of nuclear war.
The reality of nuclear war has been repressed in the Western mind; despite the sense of dread that the mention of Hiroshima evokes, the human experience of the Bomb remains beyond visualization. Our images of Hiroshima-the ubiquitous mushroom cloud, the desolate cityscape, the miles of rubble-all leave us remote from the event. The tens of thousands who lived and worked in Hiroshima are represented in these images only by their eerie absence.
"The whole incredible problem begins with the need to reinsert those events of 6 August 1945 back into the living consciousness," commented British art critic John Berger in his essay on Unforgettable Fire, a book of amateur drawings by survivors of Hiroshima. The Maruki paintings restore the individual victim of the Bomb. Death and ineluctable pain are made personal and palpable. The paintings show what statistics of destruction only mask.
An estimated ten million people in Japan and throughout the world have viewed the murals. For the Japanese, the paintings serve as a memorial to the thousands whose instantaneous deaths went unrecorded and unmourned in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For the rest of us, the Hiroshima Murals help us to see the Bomb and thus strengthen our ability to struggle against its presence in our lives.
The Marukis universalize the suffering of Hiroshima. Their subjects are Japanese, but their fate is linked to the fate of all humankind. In the early paintings, images of hell, terror, and compassion compel the viewer to identify with the victims of the Bomb. Later, the Marukis painted ever larger and more ambitious murals of other modern atrocities-among them the Japanese massacre at Nanking and the Nazi Holocaust. Placing Hiroshima on a continuum of violence and victimization strips the Bomb of its mythic power and suggests that aggression in all its forms must be understood and overcome before we will be free from the threat of another nuclear war.
Iri and Toshi Maruki were established artists when they married in 1941. They spent the war years in poverty, refusing to produce art that glorified military exploits. By August 1945, they were reduced to subsistence farming in rural Tokyo, and there they learned of the bombing of Hiroshima.
lri, then forty-four, left immediately and arrived on the first train to reach the stricken city. He found his injured family huddled in the shell of their ruined home. Close relatives had been killed by the blast, and Iri's father would die of bomb effects within six months.
Toshi, then thirty-three, arrived in Hiroshima a few days later, and the couple remained there for a month. Years afterward, they wrote of these weeks: "We carried the injured, cremated the dead, searched for food, made roofs out of scorched tin sheets, wandered about just like those who had experienced the Bomb, in the midst of flies and maggots and the stench of death.
"These experiences, indelibly impressed upon their minds, formed the basis of the Hiroshima Murals. Once they had begun to paint Hiroshima, the Marukis worked incessantly. They used each other and artist friends as models, and soon the walls of their cramped farmhouse were covered with life-sized sketches of charred and deformed individuals.
They found the courage to paint by pooling their emotional and creative energies. "We learned to respect each other's strengths and combine those strengths toward our common goal," Toshi observed. "We held back criticism and worked in silence for long periods." A new style and approach to painting was born, combining elements of Iri's India-ink painting and of Toshi's Western-style sketching.
Some 900 preliminary drawings were incorporated into Ghosts, the first mural. Scores of figures choke the scene-all nude, maimed, stunned. At the center, two partially burned women stare into each other's disfigured faces, horrified at what they have become. Behind them, a procession of dazed victims staggers aimlessly. Disembodied faces and arms are interwoven with the tangled crowd, as if to represent the city's people fused in mass death.
Once the creative and emotional barriers had been breached, the Marukis began to produce murals in rapid succession. Eight were completed by 1954. They are powerful and despairing. A scarlet inferno engulfs a web of humans who face the raging fires wherever they turn; underfoot, an infant is wreathed in flames. Men and women cluster on a riverbank, reaching with crippled hands for water to soothe their burns. At the center of the atomic desert, a naked young mother wanders past a mound of skulls with a rag doll-a pathetic symbol of the world destroyed-hanging limply from her hand. Corpses blown into the air by the blast hang upside-down from trees, like carcasses in a slaughterhouse.
The paintings depict the experiences of hundreds of individuals, and some of these stories are told in prose poems the artists composed about each mural. The naked woman cradling her infant at the center of the third mural, Water (Pages 24- 25), sought refuge from the fires at the riverside: "She stumbled into deep water, scrambled for high ground, running madly as the flames engulfed the river, splashing her face to cool her burns. Fleeing, fleeing, until finally she rested, offered her breast, only to discover her child had breathed its last. . . . Here stands the mother and child of the Twentieth Century-the statue of despair."
At the same time, the paintings convey a deeply ambivalent sense of life and beauty amidst death. Throughout the murals, the studies of nude victims are at once grotesque and exquisite, even erotic. The beauty of the human form intensifies our awareness of tragedy. There is poignant irony: In the dark gloom of the black rain that fell on Hiroshima hours after the blast, a faint double rainbow arches over a group of wounded horses. "A person is still human, no matter how battered he is," Toshi said in an interview with Japanese public television. "There is still pride. We do paint dark, painful, brutal scenes, but how should we present the people who face that reality? We want to paint them beautifully."
There are many scenes of compassion. Victims pull others from the flames, mothers suckle their infants, orphaned children find comfort in each other's arms. This theme emerges strongly in the Marukis' eighth mural, Rescue (above), a masterful painting representing the transition between the bombing and the early weeks of recovery.
The right half of Rescue is bathed in red and peopled with the wounded and dying, including the moving portrait of a woman and her young son in prayer. Emerging into the left half are healthy Japanese, bearing the injured on makeshift litters. This is a self-portrait of the Marukis, who were among the thousands who came to Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the weeks after the blasts, braving the mysterious effects of the Bomb to help with the staggering task of tending to the wounded.
Perhaps because of its inspiring portrayal of deliverance, this mural is among the most reproduced of the Marukis' paintings. For many years, it appeared as the frontispiece of a textbook used in public schools throughout Japan. The painting became a cause celebre in 1981, when the Ministry of Education, as part of its ongoing campaign to strip the antiwar content from Japanese education, refused to recertify the text until the Maruki plate was removed, on grounds that it was "too cruel" for schoolchildren.
The incident illustrates the political and social significance of atomic-bomb art in contemporary Japan: It shapes history, especially for the large portion of the population that is too young to have personal recollection of the war years. Though most of the Marukis' art is not overtly political, it does influence the public memory of war, and that memory is central to the struggle over the remilitarization of Japan.
Far from being shielded from this memory, Japanese children are actively exposed to the history of the Bomb. Each spring, the peace memorial in Hiroshima is crowded with young people on school trips.
The Hiroshima Murals do more than recreate the reality of the Bomb; they represent an active effort to prevent future nuclear wars. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Marukis' vision of the atomic-bomb experience was carried to nations as diverse as South Africa and Mongolia, Denmark and Czechoslovakia. When the paintings returned from eight years overseas, a public campaign was launched to build a museum for their permanent display. This museum, along with a studio and residence for the Marukis, was completed in 1967 and soon became a center of opposition to nuclear weapons.
The most important public activity at the museum takes place on August 6, the Hiroshima bombing anniversary, when hundreds of families gather for a memorial service. The day long event culminates in a ceremony in which paper lanterns illuminated by burning candles are floated down a nearby river in remembrance of the dead.
Derived from the ancient folk observances of Obon, the Japanese All Souls' Day, the lantern ceremony provides the central motif for the Marukis' twelfth mural, painted in 1969 after a decade in which the artists concentrated on their individual careers. The theme of the beautiful lantern mural is memory and commemoration, one step removed from the actual experience of the Bomb. Images of life and death, the traditional and the contemporary, the realistic and the abstract, intermingle.
After 1970, the Marukis portrayed other facets of war and violence, beginning with successive murals about American and Korean victims of the atomic bombs. Where the earlier murals dealt almost exclusively with the Japanese as victims of the Bomb, these paintings acknowledge that the Japanese were aggressors too, even in the face of the ultimate weapon. Some twenty imprisoned American pilots were killed in Hiroshima, some by the Bomb, others at the hands of their enraged captors. In the POW mural, it is Japanese survivors who appear ominous and terrifying, while our compassion is drawn to the dead and dying American soldiers.
Until the Marukis painted their fourteenth mural in 1972, few in Japan knew that some 15,000 Koreans died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where they had been brought to do forced labor for the war effort. Discriminated against in death as in life, Korean corpses were left to rot until the Japanese had been cremated. Because crows gathered to feed on these mounds of bodies, the Marukis used a flock of crows, painted in traditional style, as the primary theme for the mural. Through the center floats a woman's spotless dress, the Korean spirit rising from the dead.
The Marukis' depiction of the Japanese as victimizers is significant because the Japanese tend to remember the hardship of the war and defeat, capped by the unprecedented destruction of the atomic bombs, while burying the memory of their aggression. The artists' subsequent collaborative work has continued to challenge this tendency of selective forgetting.
After spending several months in Europe sketching Western models and visiting the sites of the Nazi death camps, the Marukis painted a giant (ten-by-fifty foot) mural of Auschwitz. Their only painting on a Western theme, it depicts the rounding up of the Jews, their incarceration, and their extermination.
In recent years, Iri and Toshi Maruki have maintained a steady painting schedule despite their advanced age (Iri is now eighty-three, Toshi seventy-two). Each winter, they spend four months painting together, preparing, researching, and then producing a new mural. They have discovered new methods for painting with India ink, and their compositions have become more purposeful and complex.
The Marukis have begun to develop an artistic counterpart to oral and written history. Among the chapters in this history is Minamata, the site of the tragic mercury poisoning that afflicted thousands of fishing people in southern Japan in the 1960s. The artists lived in Minamata for months at a stretch, sketching deformed victims and the poisoned sea, then returned to Tokyo to finish a dark and intricate mural. In one telling detail, the crippled hand of the present reaches into the womb. Their latest project, begun in 1982, chronicles the Battle of Okinawa, the last major land battle of World War II. The central incident of this panel is the forced suicide of Okinawan civilians. As in many of their other murals, the terror is palpable,the violence overwhelming.
The Marukis continue to focus on visions that most of us would rather not see. They want to ensure that the world not forget its debasement, that people remember the depths of their potential inhumanity. They are determined to use the power of art and imagination to oppose the most evil of acts.
In the mural Water, the painting of the mother and child-the Twentieth Century "statue of despair"-is all the more stunning because of its likeness to the classical Madonna and Child. And though it is a portrait of despair, the accompanying poem ends with this plea: "Let the mother and child be a symbol of hope as it always has been. It must be!"
John Junkerman, a Boston-based freelance writer, and John W. Dower, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin Madison, collaborated on a documentary film about Iri and Toshi Maruki.