The Life of Isamu Noguchi: Life Without Borders

English version

English version

by Masayo Dousu (2006)

I discovered this artist at an exhibition in Hiroshima this summer, and heard from a friend that Isamu’s mother was an American, Leonie Gilmour. A graduate of Bryn Mawr, she was three years behind Umeko Tsuda in school. After graduating, she worked correcting the English writing of poet Yone Noguchi. When she found herself pregnant, Yone returned to Japan without offering her any support.

The first volume (the Japanese comes in 2 volumes) tells how Leonie brought her 2-year-oldson to Japan  and raised him on her own while teaching English. From his boyhood, Isamu  was often bullied  for being different from other children. In Japan, he didn’t quite fit in and became a loner. Nevertheless, his relationship with his mother fostered a love of literature including Greek mythology. At the age of 13, he was apprenticed to a carpenter and learned to carve intricate latticework. He found he loved this carving and sculpting.


Isamu came to America in 1918 at the age of 13 to attend a unique school in Indiana. When this school folded, he was left homeless for a time, but was taken in and sent to school by benefactor, Edward Rumely. Briefly attending Columbia Univ Medical School, he soon realized it was not for him. He set out to become an artist, travelling to Paris on a Guggenheim scholarship to study art, he offered to cut stone for famous abstract sculptor, Brancusi .

Red Cube

Red Cube

In Paris, Isamu was taken under the wing of several well-known artists, including Leonard Foujita. He was able to rent a studio on the Montparnasse. At times forced to take commissions of busts of the famous and wealthy to earn a living, Isamu Noguchi continued to hone his own unique abstract style. In the 1930’s, he worked with and knew Mexican fresco artists Diego Rivera, Orozco and Sisqueiros whose murals sought to unify the country after the Mexican Revolution.

In fact, Osamu had a brief affair with Rivera’s wife, the impetuous and strong-willed Frida Kahlo. Returning to the United States, he found that the war had led to the internment of Japanese Americans. Osamu voluntarily entered the Poston camp in order to start some art projects with the inmates. Unfortunately, he accomplished little as he was unable to fit in with Nisei who viewed him as an American and not one of them.

After the war, Osamu was finally able to fulfill his lifetime ambition to travel in the East and visit many sites such as the Taj Mahal and the pyramids.

Isamu Noguchi

Isamu Noguchi

In his final years, he was influenced by Japanese pottery and by paper and bamboo lanterns in Japan. He went on to create the  famous Japanese garden at the Unesco headquarters and another in Takamatsu, Japan.

Learning about his art was an interesting experience, but I especially enjoyed reading about his personal life and all the experiences that influenced him. This book was a real discovery for me and I would highly recommend it.

(Based on the Japanese language version, イサム ノグチ 宿命の越境者 by  ドウス昌代)


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