After the atomic bomb that led to the deaths of over 100,000 people exploded in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, artists Iri and Toshi Maruki entered the destroyed city — Iri just three days after the blast, Toshi following her husband shortly thereafter. The pair had traveled there from Tokyo to join friends and family and found themselves surrounded by burned buildings and charred bodies, breathing air that smelled like death, with flies and maggots the only thriving forms of life. For weeks they remained in the leveled city, tending to the injured and cremating the dead. Three years later, they began painting the trauma they had witnessed — an effort that stretched over 32 years and yielded 15 large, folding panels of hellish scenes known as the Hiroshima Panels, each accompanied by a short poem explaining the subject depicted. Six paintings and poems from the series, usually on display at Maruki Gallery in Saitama, are currently at Pioneer Works, marking the first time the panels have appeared in New York City in 45 years.
Standing nearly six feet tall, each work consists of eight joined panels forming a seamless scene in the style of a traditional byōbu screen that stretches 23-and-a-half feet. Laid out in this monumental format, tragedy literally unfolds before viewers; the horrific events and aftermath of Hiroshima — and Nagasaki — are unflinchingly exposed. Such imagery, however, was rarely seen in the years following the bombing due to US censorship of related media, and the Marukis became concerned that people would never really understand what happened. The couple initially intended to paint just one work, but when hibakusha saw the completed painting and shared their personal experiences with the artists, the two resolved to create more, realizing that for many Japanese, the image was the first they had seen of the bombings.
That first panel, “Ghosts,” which stands at the start of the Pioneer Works exhibition, is an ashen nightmare: piles of bodies float through vacant space with outstretched arms, processing like corpses to some afterlife, all naked as their clothes have burned off. Some clutch their faces or each other; limbs dissolve into smoke and mix with blackened debris. Many are nearly skeletons with visible ribcages. From afar, the mass of tangled bodies resembles a plume of toxic smoke. The Marukis’ collaborative approach to painting in particular enhanced this density and haziness, marrying Iri’s traditional technique of black-and-white sumi-e, or inkwash, painting with Toshi’s western-style illustrations. (She was known as one of Japan’s most celebrated children’s book illustrators.) After Toshi outlined figures with ink and chalk, Iri would splash India ink over them to muddle them; they would then repeat the process of painting and concealing, making the realities of war emerge from the layers of darkness.
One may witness this peculiar dance in Hellfire: A Journey from Hiroshima, a 1986 documentary about the panels that is also on view at Pioneer Works. The couple works directly on top of each sheet of paper as it lays on the ground. The resulting imagery is so strong that when they unveiled the red-and-black stained “Hell” to Japanese press at a local temple in 1985, the artists encouraged reporters to walk on its surface in their socks.
“Hell,” tumultuous and charged, memorializes the fateful moments immediately following the explosion. Flames, crimson like blood, lick bodies crammed into the picture plane with no sign of possible escape. For their first 10 or so works, the Marukis focused on the desperation and anguish from the Japanese perspective but later, in a significant shift of perspective, showed their countrymen as aggressors, too, following the panels’ 1970 world tour — which stopped in US cities, including New York.
“The panels were always meant to be shown globally,” Pioneer Works curator David Howe told Hyperallergic. “This was important to the Marukis because they considered the panels to have resonance beyond a specifically Japanese context, and they wanted them — particularly in later examples — to offer a multidimensional view of the catastrophes.
“When the Marukis first showed the panels in the US in 1970, they received viewpoints very different from what they were used to in Japan, of Japanese aggression towards US citizens (such as at Pearl Harbor),” Howe continued. “So I think that encountering a US audience broadened and complicated their position on World War II, and they sought to address that.”
Two of these later works, among the six in the exhibition, show American prisoners of war as they were beaten to death by Japanese survivors and the corpses of forced laborers from Korea feasted upon by a menacing flock of crows. The Hiroshima Panels, however, did not just center on violent visuals. Bookending the four apocalyptic scenes are two vividly colored series of panels set after the bombings: one showing a lantern ceremony that commemorates the dead; the other documenting a 1954 petition launched by housewives in Suginami to protest nuclear weapons. In the latter, cherry blossoms fleck the crowded space with light spots while doves soar beside the living. On the far right, a young woman shouldering a swaddled baby bends over to sign the document in a panel that looks forward to a future of hope and revival. In a world still not free of nuclear arms, the Hiroshima Panels remind of the risks that were once realized and the horrific consequences. Seventy years have gone by since the atomic bombs fell, but the Marukis’ message is not yet just part of the past.