Hiroshima, seen through the eyes of innocence and experience

In 1947, when parishioners from a DC church sent 1,000 pounds of school supplies to Hiroshima, the long-term effects of atomic radiation were little understood. But many Americans had a vivid picture of the devastation wrought by the Japanese city, thanks to John Hersey’s book “Hiroshima.” That eloquent account, first published in the New Yorker in 1946, told what happened to six survivors of the atomic bomb during and immediately after the detonation.

Retropolis: The US hid the human suffering of Hiroshima. Then John Hersey went to Japan.

Hersey and Hiroshima are the links between two sets of artworks on display in the Phillips Collection. “Jacob Lawrence and the Children of Hiroshima” places eight serigraphs Lawrence made for a limited edition of Hersey’s 1983 book in the same gallery as eight drawings from circa 1947 by students at the school closest to Ground Zero. The latter were previously displayed locally in the American University Museum’s “Hiroshima-Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Exhibition” in 2015.

The children’s photos, made with crayons and pencils donated by All Souls Church, a unitary congregation in Columbia Heights, contain only a hint of what happened in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Most of the drawings are peaceful scenes of children playing, along with a few portraits and a representation of a woman in a kimono. The exception is a sunny view of one of the city’s many rivers, a scene that seems generic, save for the skeletal ruin now commonly referred to as the A-Bomb Dome, visible on the far left.

The creator of the photo, who was 9 or 10 when she took it, may not have known that a T-shaped bridge in this neighborhood was the exact target of the plane that dropped the atomic bomb. The area included her school – Honkawa Elementary, now a peace museum – where more than 400 died on August 6.

The chalk drawing contains something that is missing from Lawrence’s photographs: green, the color of life and renewal. His prints are usually in shades of brown and reddish purple, interrupted by blue, yellow and blood red accents. The palette is, intentionally and appropriately, eerily unnatural. Brown also dominates many of the paintings in Lawrence’s best-known series of illustrations, his 1940-41 ‘Migration Series’, of which half of the 60 panels are owned by the Phillips. But therein, the color is more earthy and less ominous.

Many of the childhood photos feature faces, which are largely missing from Lawrence’s prints. His subjects have skulls for heads, flanked by red flesh that appears to have partially melted away. The people perform everyday tasks while in a kind of half-life, surrounded by death. Several images contain the corpses of dead birds, and a striking vignette shows six people sitting on benches, framed by the outline of a charred black tree in the foreground.

While most of Lawrence’s work focused on the Black experience, the African-American artist had previously created paintings about World War II, based on his service with the US Coast Guard during that conflict. (He served on the first racially integrated crew in Coast Guard history.) Born in Atlantic City in 1917, Lawrence moved to Harlem at age 13, but spent the last third of his life in Seattle, where he went on to teach at the University of Washington (and died in 2000). It is likely that in the Pacific Northwest he became more familiar with Asian-American culture.

Vibrant artist Jacob Lawrence, 82, passed away

This is not apparent from the eight Hiroshima prints, which were donated to the Phillips in 2021 by NoraLee and Jon Sedmak. There is little that seems specifically Japanese in Lawrence’s work. But the artist was not required to give the details of the Hiroshima bombing and its effects; Hersey had already done that. What Lawrence adds is the increased sense of terror that comes with recognizing the suffering caused over time by radiation and due to the proliferation of nuclear weapons since 1946.

If the photos of the Hiroshima schoolchildren represent innocence, Lawrence’s reflect the experience. The first presume a return to pre-nuclear normality; the latter grimly admit that this is impossible.

Jacob Lawrence and the Children of Hiroshima

Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW. 202-387-2151. phillipscollection.org.

Recognition: Included with general admission of $16; $12 for seniors; $10 for students and teachers; and free for members, children under 18 and military personnel. Masks are mandatory. This also applies to time-limited tickets, except for members.

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