The image above is a silkscreen by artist YAYANAGI Go, commissioned by my parents in 1976 as part of a group portfolio to celebrate the American Bicentennial, hence the unusually large-sized edition of 200 to mark the event. The artists selected were each asked to create a print that showed what America meant to them, and this was Yayanagi's tribute to the United States. In what is a rather small print, he managed to include his signature black and white stripes, the Pacific and Atlantic oceans as well as an homage to Hokusai's great wave, the Rocky Mountain range, a flag-breasted bald eagle, a moose whose antlers form the great lakes, and to illustrate the innovative spirit of America through both its skyscrapers and space program. Of course, no Yayanagi print of the time was complete without some anatomical representation, in this case breasts or, as he put it, "what America was built on". For me, this print truly illustrates the colorful exuberance and playful humor of the artist.
The sound of crickets chirping outside my window here in the Hamptons today took me back to Tokyo last summer when Yayanagi-san stopped by the gallery for an unexpected visit. As always, he was nattily turned out despite the heat: a flowing scarf printed with his own black-and-white striped design around his shoulders and a beret jauntily perched on his head. He mentioned that he had just returned from a trip to Hokkaido to see to his family’s property. Yayanagi’s work typically is a riot of tropical colors so it’s funny to think that he was born on the northernmost of Japan’s islands, famed for its snow and ice.
Yayanagi (b.1933) has a first name whose Chinese character can be read as either Tsuyoshi or Go, and he can be found online under either moniker should you wish to see more images of his fantastical work. Mostly however, contrary to many Japanese artists who are always referred to by their last names followed by their first names, he is simply referred to by his last name.
Yayanagi-san traveled extensively as a young man. Leaving the wintry climes of Hokkaido in 1951, it took him 45 days by boat to get to Brazil, where it was relatively easy for Japanese to emigrate. He drew and painted and wandered the world, leaving Brazil in 1959 to go to Africa, Singapore and the Philippines.
By 1965 he had found his way to Paris and enrolled in a copperplate printmaking class with the legendary S.W. Hayter at Atelier 17. He stayed three years and when he returned to Japan he brought back a definite air of French-ness, helped by the distinguished goatee he favored along with his customary beret. My sister and I attended the Lycée Franco-Japonais and had a thoroughly French education so we were always happy to chat with Yayanagi-san about his life in Paris. He would arrive at the gallery and inquire “Ça va?” while handing over a fancy box of marrons glacés which my sister and I viewed as the height of culinary sophistication at the time. And we also enjoyed knowing that our "uncle" had designed the tickets for the Tokyo Ueno Zoo.
He would tell us “the world is art” and in his infinitely creative way made paintings and prints and mosaics and murals, many for public museums, libraries, and corporate collections. All the colors and patterns that he had observed in his travels also got used when he started designing textiles, and my mother wore an evening gown made of Yayanagi-designed fabric to the opening of the Salzburg Opera 1976 season.
At the same time that he had absorbed all this exoticness, the artist was working with the legacy of traditional Japanese art. When asked what movement he belonged to, Yayanagi’s stock answer was always “Pop-uki”-- in other words, melding the playful, contemporary nature of Pop Art with ukiyo-e motifs.
Yayanagi’s work in the 1970s and 80s also featured sexual themes and I can remember, as a young girl, looking at one of his brilliantly colored silkscreens that featured a parrot and a woman’s bottom, and then puzzling as to just what that other strange protuberance was. The adults in the room chuckled and attempted to divert my attention, much like viewers of shunga (erotic woodblock prints) must have done with children in bygone times. I have been looking for that particular print for years and, though I have come across plenty of bums, bosoms and parrots in Yayanagi's work, that particular print has eluded me. Perhaps one day I will visit someone's home and a copy will be hanging there. Sometimes I wonder if, being a susceptible child, I just amalgamated several prints into one fantastic image in my mind. Should you be reading this and own such a print, please contact me!
Yayanagi had a family of his own and so he was always very comfortable chatting with my sister and me. (In addition, he could practice his French.) Peering at us over the top of his chic, black- rimmed glasses, he would find out what was happening at the Lycée, if we had gone to see the latest Alain Delon movie (a personal favorite of mine in the mid 70s) or if we had heard the latest Jacques Brel record.
We had fun with him in a different way than with the other artists, perhaps because, since he had spent so much time overseas, he had a much more international outlook than the others. Catching up with him last summer, and in 2018 as illustrated below, I felt that same playful, inquisitive spark still going strong in Yayanagi-san.