Hiroshima Exhibit Takes New Approach
If you were to ask a random student what they thought an art exhibition called “Through Children’s Eyes: Hiroshima” would be about, they’d probably say something like “a depressing war story” (other people I asked substituted the words “bleak,” “grim,” “sad,” and “miserable”). However, they would be totally wrong. Instead of the usual scenes of carnage and destruction we usually associate with one of the only cities to fall victim to nuclear force, this exhibition chooses a far more optimistic and innocent approach to what was arguably one of the greatest tragedies of World War II. By collecting a series of drawings, paintings, and letters from a multitude of school children, this show explores the reality of postwar Hiroshima and, more importantly, how these children perceived their world.
The show all started in 1946, when the minister of a Washington, D.C. church was outraged by the blasé attitude many American citizens and diplomats held toward the events of Hiroshima and the hardships of its survivors. The minister, in association with the Japanese Occupation Minister, responded by sending several tons of paper, pens, and other school supplies to two elementary schools in Hiroshima. A few months later, the schools showed their gratitude by sending back a thank-you crate filled with dolls, letters, and pictures, all created by the students. The drawings and paintings of these kids made a splash when they were first received, but they were soon forgotten and placed in storage. It wasn’t until 50 years later that the curator of this exhibition, Willamarie Moore, former curator of the Fine Arts Museum of Boston and current Curator of the MFA, rediscovered these pieces and set about restoring the works. This also led to the creation of a documentary, which found that 20 of the children in question are still alive today.
Once you enter the exhibition, the sheer amount of color in all these works immediately grabs your attention. From watercolor depictions of grassy playgrounds to crayon illustrations of vibrant city festivals, almost every work holds a sunny, childish optimism. What then becomes apparent is the near absence of any reference to the tragedy that these children experienced. Rather than nuclear destruction and fallout, the drawings all focus on the students’ everyday lives, and do so with a magical creativity.
As the curator herself put it, “When given the opportunity to express themselves, they’ve shared their world.”
Even though they were done by children, almost all the artwork—from the crayon drawings of playgrounds that evoke a wondrous sense of creativity and optimism, to the amazingly realistic watercolors of Hiroshima’s bays and old city streets—is moving and beautiful. However, some of the works do tackle darker subject matter. One depicts children taking shelter from the irradiated Heavy Rain, which afflicted the city in wake of the A-Bomb. Another is a dark brown watercolor painting of the skeletal remains of what we now know today as the Hiroshima Peace Building. These two paintings gain a haunting irony when they are paired with one of the children’s letters which reads, “America, Our Friends.”
Even though these works have an approachable and understandable importance, it is obvious that those more familiar with Japanese culture and especially its language will get more out of the exhibit. This is especially apparent with some of the letters that have been posted, which display large Hirigana and Kanji calligraphy without any English translation.
In the end, “Through Children’s Eyes: Hiroshima” offers a surprisingly uplifting perspective on a dramatic period of history, which, as the curator stated, is the real objective of this show. This is a small exhibition that takes much time to see, but it’s definitely worth checking out.