See Hiroshima with the eyes of innocence and experience

In 1947, when Washington Church parishioners sent 1,000 pounds of school supplies to Hiroshima, little was known about the long-term effects of atomic radiation. But thanks to John Hersey’s book, “Hiroshima,” many Americans do have a vivid understanding of the devastation in Japanese cities. This eloquent account, first published in The New Yorker in 1946, recounts what happened to six atomic bomb survivors during and immediately after the explosion.

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

The children’s photo, made with crayons and pencils donated by the Unitarian congregation All Souls Church in Columbia Heights, contains only one clue of what happened in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Most of the drawings are serene scenes of children playing, as well as some portraits and renderings of a woman in a kimono. The exception is a sunny view of one of the city’s many rivers, which looks ordinary except for the skeletal ruins now commonly known as the atomic bomb dome, visible on the far left.

The creator of the painting, who was only 9 or 10 years old when she took it, may not have known that a nearby T-shaped bridge was the exact target of the plane that dropped the nuclear bomb. The area includes her school, Honkawa Elementary School, now a Peace Museum, where more than 400 people died on August 6.

Crayon drawings contain what Lawrence’s paintings lack: green, life, and renewed color. His prints are mostly brown and mauve, with accents of blue, yellow and blood red. The color palette is intentional and appropriate, very unnatural. Brown also dominated many of the paintings in Lawrence’s most famous set of illustrations, his 1940-41 “Migration Series,” in which half of the 60 panels were owned by Phillips. But of those, the colors are more earthy and less ominous.

Many of the children’s pictures included most of the missing faces in Lawrence’s pictures. His subjects had skulls flanked by red flesh that seemed to have partially melted. People perform everyday tasks during half-life, surrounded by death. Several images include the carcass of a dead bird, and a striking vignette depicts six people sitting on a bench, the foreground surrounded by the silhouette of a charred black tree.

While much of Lawrence’s work focuses on the black experience, the African-American artist has previously painted about World War II based on his service with the U.S. Coast Guard during that conflict. (He served with the first racially integrated crew member 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 to teach at the University of Washington (and died in 2000). It is likely that he was more familiar with Asian American culture while in the Pacific Northwest.

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This is not evident in the eight Hiroshima prints donated to Phillips by NoraLee and Jon Sedmak in 2021. In Lawrence’s work, there is little that is particularly Japanese. However, the artist did not have to provide details of the Hiroshima explosion and its effects; Hersey already did. Lawrence added that this fear will increase over time as people realize the pain caused by radiation, and the proliferation of nuclear weapons since 1946.

If pictures of Hiroshima elementary school students represent innocence, Lawrence’s pictures reflect experience. The former assumes a return to pre-nuclear normalcy; the latter grimly admits that this is impossible.

Jacob Lawrence and the children of Hiroshima

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

Admission: Included in $16 general admission; $12 seniors; $10 students and teachers; free for members, children under 18, and military. Masks are required. The same is true for timed admission tickets, except for members.

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