The Hiroshima Panels

Fire - Painting by Iri and Toshi Maruki (detail)

Virtually unknown in the west, the Hiroshima Panels are as profound an antiwar work as Pablo Picasso’s famous mural, Guernica. The creation of Japanese artists, Iri and Toshi Maruki (both now deceased), the panels depict the atomic holocaust wrought upon Japan when the U.S. dropped nuclear bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The monumental panels, which are actually painted upon traditional-style folding screens, took 30 years to complete, and provide a chilling look at the terror of nuclear war. The husband and wife team visited the city of Hiroshima three days after it was bombed. They carried the injured, cremated the dead, searched for food, and gathered materials to help construct shelters. Overwhelmed by the destruction they witnessed, three years passed before the couple decided to set upon the creation of artworks that would communicate to the world the need to banish nuclear weapons.

Using a poetic figurative realism partly based upon traditional Japanese aesthetics, the Maruki’s painted a series of monumental panels that graphically portrayed how the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki came face to face with the atomic age on the 6th and 9th of August, 1945. By 1956 the artists had completed ten panels, adding two new screens; the eleventh in 1959 and the twelfth in 1968. Each of the panels dealt with specific aspects of the bombing, and were appropriately titled with names like Ghosts, Fire and Atomic Desert.

The murals were no mere castigation of the U.S. for having dropped the bombs on Japan. The Maruki’s savagely criticized Japan’s own war-time militarists for being cruel imperialists, and in the panel portraying the Japanese occupation and rape of Nanking, China – all the ferocity and arrogance of Imperial Japan is laid bare.

The artists also painted a panel called Auschwitz, where the Nazi atrocities committed against the Jewish people were depicted with unrelenting clarity. The Maruki’s also painted panels showing Korean forced laborers and U.S. prisoners of war as victims of the atomic bombings. One panel, simply title Crows, illustrated a grisly scene – flocks of Crows descending from the sky to feast upon dead Koreans. Painted with a traditional flourish, it is a heartrending and pitiful image. As the artists wrote, “Koreans and Japanese look alike. Mercilessly charred faces – is there any difference? Together, Asians were devastated by the bomb.”

Known in Japan as, Genbaku no Zu (Hiroshima Murals), the panels brought international recognition to the artists. In 1995 the Maruki’s were recommended for the Nobel Peace Prize for their ardent creative work towards world peace. Their artworks were exhibited overseas numerous times, and a museum was established in Japan to house them in 1967. Iri passed away in 1995, and his wife Toshi, followed in 2000. The Maruki Gallery for the Hiroshima Panels is still open to the public today, and they maintain a website were you can get a glimpse of this world treasure. Twenty years ago, the artists wrote:

“We began making sketches and worked day and night, encouraged by friends of the same mind who offered to act as models. As we painted, we thought and remembered and wondered. What is a 17 year old life span to a 17-year-old? What is a three year life to a three-year-old? The 900 sketches were merged together to create the paintings. We thought we had painted a tremendous number of people, but there were around 260,000 who died in Hiroshima.

If we painted for years, we could not put on paper the number killed in that one second. We prayed for the blessing of the dead and prayed that the bomb would never fall again and destroy life. With these thoughts supermost in our minds, as one painting was completed – we began another. The long lasting radioactivity and the latent effects of the bomb are still, nearly forty years later, causing suffering and death. This was not a natural disaster – that is the unforgettable horrifying fact.”

UPDATE: August 6, 2015

For the first time ever, the Hiroshima Panels will be exhibited in the US. The American University Museum in Washington, DC will show six large folding screens painted by Toshi Maruki depicting the horrors of the Hiroshima bombing. The showing is part of the museum’s Hiroshima-Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Exhibit that runs until August 16th, 2015. Watch a video overview of the exhibit here.

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