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Virtual Asian-American Art Museum Project

Alexei Taylor, Author

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Toshio Aoki

Toshio Aoki relocated to the United States in 1880, when the passion for Japonisme was at its peak. His American work varied in subject matter (including avian imagery, still life, and mythological figures) as well as in style, which ranged from visionary Nihonga to familiar American rendering. Aoki is often known for his decorative images of flying Chinese female deities; examples include his multiple representations of Chang-E ascending to the moon. In this example (Plate 1), she is seen surrounded by flowing robes and scarves, accompanied by two children, and with her rabbit companion nestled in her upraised hand, all of this against a roiling and threatening night sky of abstract ink.

Aoki also painted other deities. His underwater Fish Basket Kannon (Fig. 14) in the collection of the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, depicts one of the thirty-one manifestations of the bodhisattva of compassion and is sometimes interpreted as a reference to prostitutes, according to the museum’s acquisition report.

Although Aoki achieved in his lifetime a high profile as an artist (and as the adoptive father of actress Tsuru, who married film star Sessue Hayakawa, both of whom were well positioned in early Hollywood), only a few dozen examples of Aoki’s fine art have surfaced to date, suggesting that full recognition of his achievement is still to be articulated.
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