A Bicultural Jesus Celebrates Asian American Identity
Tyrus Wong, “Chinese Jesus” (photo by Mark Gibson, courtesy the Walt Disney Family Museum)
SAN FRANCISCO — “It’s a knockout!” gasped Stanford University art historian and Museum of Art curator Marci Kwon, as the cardboard cover was moved aside to reveal Tyrus Wong’s “Chinese Jesus” painting. The six-foot-tall image of Christ with both Chinese and European features had languished unseen for decades, and despite two brief public exhibitions less than a decade ago the painting still remained in storage. Last December, however, Kwon and two other museum representatives were in San Francisco’s Chinatown to consider the artwork for possible conservation and acquisition. Their interest in the painting is a measure of the growing understanding of Wong’s legacy, as well as the groundswell of attention to Asian American art over the past two years.
Today Tyrus Wong is best known for styling Disney’s beloved 1942 animated film, Bambi, but he made the “Chinese Jesus” painting before he began working in Hollywood. In the mid-1930s Wong was a founding member of the Oriental Artists Group, a circle of California-based Chinese and Japanese American artists who garnered attention for their balance of traditional Asian and contemporary Euro-American aesthetics. “Chinese Jesus,” for example, has almond eyes along with an aquiline nose and red hair, and floats on clouds whose vivid hues and stylized shapes recall both Chinese opera backdrops and the rhythmic hues of contemporary Synchromism. (Wong knew Synchromism co-founder Stanton Macdonald-Wright through the WPA and the Los Angeles Art Students League.) According to Wong, the Chinese church in Los Angeles that had originally commissioned the painting rejected it because of its unconventional features. “Well, how do you know what Jesus looks like?!,” was his typically insouciant response.
The painting probably landed in San Francisco when the clergyman for the Los Angeles church was transferred north to the Bay area; there, it was hung in the Chinese United Methodist Church. By the late 1950s Wong had become one of the nation’s leading Christmas card artists, known for a style that melded traditional Chinese brushwork with Christian iconography and other Euro-American holiday imagery. None of this was known to young David Lei, who grew up gazing at the painting when his family attended services at the church. At some point “Chinese Jesus” disappeared from public view. In 2013 Lei — now an influential philanthropist dedicated to preserving Chinese American cultural heritage — learned through a congregation member that just such a painting still existed in the church’s broom closet.
San Francisco State art historian and curator Mark Johnson, who in 1995 co-curated at the university gallery one of the first major retrospectives of Asian American art, reached out to Wong. Then-103-year-old Wong’s reunion with this masterpiece from his early career occurred just in time for the painting to be briefly exhibited during a 2013 Disney Family Museum feature on the artist, as well as in 2016 for the Center for Asian American Media film festival, which opened with an award-winning documentary about him.
Despite the flurry of publicity upon its rediscovery and exhibition, however, no institutions showed any interest in putting “Chinese Jesus” on permanent display. This was due partly to the painting’s size and fragile state, its shellac yellowing and its frame held together by the canvas. It also reflects the challenge of contextualizing Wong’s art, which traversed the fine and commercial art spheres, gaining acclaim in the latter. Of course, Wong’s career also cannot be disentangled from the systemic and social challenges that faced Chinese immigrants in the United States. When he painted “Chinese Jesus,” he was still prevented by the Chinese Exclusion Act, a federal law that severely restricted Chinese immigration, from becoming a US citizen. Throughout his career, critical reception of his works often stressed his ethnic heritage, ignoring the bicultural influences of someone who had been in the US since childhood, and who had studied both traditional Chinese calligraphy and European and American art history and media.
Tyrus Wong greeting his “Chinese Jesus” painting, for the first time in over 70 years (photo courtesy David Lei)
In recent years, however, growing awareness of Asian American history as well as contemporary cultural developments have fostered a very different climate for Asian and Asian American art. As veteran activists and philanthropists like David Lei work to preserve Asian American heritage and cultural history, established museums and institutions eager to access relatively untapped sectors of donors have started to invest in previously neglected fields. Since 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic and racial justice movements have endowed this work with a new urgency. In the earliest months of the pandemic, Asian American artists and cultural figures were prominent in denouncing anti-Asian hate. When racial justice protests erupted in summer 2020, arts-specific movements like #ChangeTheMuseum helped expose the micro- and macro-aggression pervading establishment culture.
The progress wrought by these recent changes is substantial. In the past two years, prices have spiked for a few well-known Asian American artists. Last September, a Martin Wong painting sold at auction for $1.1 million, and before that “skyrocketing” sales in celebrated San Francisco sculptor Ruth Asawa’s work totaled more than $16 million. This price increase is particularly astonishing when contrasted with the relative lack of interest in the recent past. For years, major pieces by world-renowned ink painter Chiura Obata could be purchased for $1000. When pathbreaking dealer and collector Michael D. Brown, who held one of the country’s leading Asian American art collections, passed away in 2019, his vast estate was valued at less than a quarter million dollars. “It’s depressing,” says Marci Kwon, acknowledging how little the mainstream art establishment previously valued Asian American art.
Now, however, this all seems to be changing. As Mark Johnson speculates, reflecting on two prominent Bay Area museums who declined “Chinese Jesus” when it was offered less than 10 years ago, “I think if you went back to them today, they might say something different.”
Both Kwon and Johnson credit the Asian American community for fueling this new attention to Asian American art and art history. According to Kwon, in the past few years “community members started coming out the woodwork, wanting to share and find a home for things their family members had left behind.” In Los Angeles, local architect Richard Liu worked with Art Salon Chinatown founder and first art curator of the Chinese American Museum of Los Angeles, Sonia Mak, to restore the private office of pioneering immigration rights attorney Y.C. Hong, in which traditional Chinese stylings merge with Streamline Moderne design. (Tyrus Wong’s “Confucius as a Justice” watercolor graces the office mantel.) In New York, despite a potentially devastating 2020 fire that threatened nearly 85% of its collection, the Museum of Chinese in America reopened to the public this past fall, aided by a $3 million Ford Foundation grant and $5 million from Mackenzie Scott, as well as an outpouring of public support. Some of that community support appears as art images contributed to the museum’s ongoing OneWorld COVID-19 special collection about resisting pandemic-related anti-Asian hate.
So what does this all portend for “Chinese Jesus,” a work that Mark Johnson says “makes you rethink everything”? With its titular blend of western culture and Asian ethnicity, the painting embodies Asian American identity. Originating in the 1930s, “Chinese Jesus” is a monumental example of Wong’s early fine arts career, which both prefigures the bicultural aesthetics of his later bestselling Christmas cards and expands understandings of his career beyond Bambi. Amy Poster, Curator Emerita of Asian Art at the Brooklyn Museum, calls the work “iconic” for its religious subject matter and its representation of Wong’s unique style.
But as a masterpiece of Asian American art “Chinese Jesus” also belongs to American art history. The current interest in conserving “Chinese Jesus” is a gratifying indicator of the newfound recognition of Asian American art’s place in American art history. As Mark Johnson notes, for its “scale and ambition, [the painting] is unlike any other religious painting in California at its time, by any artist of any race or ethnicity.”