How Kazuo Nakamura helped pioneer abstract art in Canada after surviving B.C. internment camps

Years ahead of his time, the groundbreaking Japanese Canadian painter brought together art and science in search of universal truths.

Years ahead of his time, Nakamura brought together art and science in search of universal truths

Kazuo Nakamura, August, Morning Reflections, 1961, oil on canvas, 93.7 x 121. 5 cm, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa (9525). (National Gallery of Canada. © Estate of Kazuo Nakamura)

This excerpt is adapted from Kazuo Nakamura: Life & Work, the latest edition in the Art Canada Institute's Canadian Online Art Book Project.

A dozen or so years ago, I was walking through the National Gallery's collection of Canadian art when I suddenly caught sight of a painting, a landscape in soft tones of bluish green, that appeared like an oasis amongst the cacophony of colours and brushstrokes of the works around it. Approaching it, my fascination increased as I realized the light it captured was the product of exposed areas of primed canvas. Essentially, this painting — August, Morning Reflections, 1961 — was made using one colour, with all the nuances the product of variations in the brushwork.

I wrote down the artist's name in a notebook, "Kazuo Nakamura." The name was unknown to me, and though Canadian art is not my area of expertise, I knew enough of it to wonder why I hadn't encountered this name or his work before. My curiosity was piqued.

As I looked into Nakamura's career, I discovered an artist of amazing breadth, who embraced a range of styles unparalleled by any of the artists I have studied. Behind it all was a fascination with science and a desire to tap into the universal truths it promised to reveal, fuelled by an untempered optimism.

Kazuo Nakamura, March 18, March 18, 1944, gouache on card, 28 x 35.5 cm, Canadian War Museum, Ottawa, purchase (20190036-017). (Courtesy of the Canadian War Museum)

Today, researchers around the world are exploring how collaborations between artists and scientists can offer new insights in physics, biology, environmental studies, and medicine. Far ahead of his time, Kazuo Nakamura (1926–2002) is a powerful example of the rich creativity that can arise from bringing different fields of study together. What makes Nakamura's art all the more notable, however, is that it emerged from adversity.

Born in Vancouver, Nakamura grew up during a period of intense anti-Asian discrimination in Canada. At Vancouver Technical Secondary School, he enrolled in the applied arts program, where he studied drafting, mechanical drawing, and design. Nakamura savoured life in the city, and his earliest paintings depict local landmarks.

The trajectory of Nakamura's life changed dramatically during World War II when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on December 7, 1941. Alongside the United States, Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King declared war on Japan. Within days, the Canadian government required all people of Japanese descent to report themselves to the Registrar of Enemy Aliens. Within a month, King invoked the War Measures Act to require "persons of Japanese racial origin" living on the west coast to relocate to a "protected area" 160 kilometres inland. Ultimately, around 22,000 Japanese Canadians were forcibly removed from their homes.

In October 1942, Nakamura and his family were relocated to an internment camp in Tashme, a small community 22km east of Hope, a town in the Fraser Valley. There the young artist worked for most of the day cutting lumber and clearing brush. In the evenings he attended high school classes and continued with his art practice, dedicating every free moment to sketching and painting.

Kazuo Nakamura, Morning Mist, 1951, oil on board, 78.7 x 61 cm, Collection of John and Katia Bianchini. (Courtesy of Heffel Fine Art Auction House)

As Nakamura would say later in life, after having been interned, he felt he had lost the time required for the study he would have needed to become a scientist. But his interest in science never waned — and it became fundamental to his artmaking. Even in his earliest statements about his work, Nakamura spoke of seeking out and striving to reveal the underlying structure of the universe.

In late 1944, with the end of WW II nearing, two options were given to interned Japanese Canadians: deportation to Japan after the war or relocation east of the Rocky Mountains. Going back to the homes they had left behind in British Columbia was not a choice. Nakamura and his family moved to Hamilton, Ont., and eventually settled in Toronto, where he soon became an art student at Central Technical School. By the early 1950s he had begun exhibiting his work, and in 1954 he became one of the co-founders of the famed Painters Eleven, a Toronto group that popularized abstraction and helped it become one of the most pioneering movements in Canadian art history.

Kazuo Nakamura, Reversed Images, 1965, oil on canvas, 81.3 x 86.4 cm, private collection. (Courtesy of Waddington’s Auctioneers and Appraisers, Toronto)

Nakamura's interest in science emerged in earnest in 1957, and his art increasingly showed its influence. His painting Infinite Waves, 1957, was inspired by the traces of subatomic particles, while works like Inner Structure, 1956, reflect Nakamura's fascination with the motion of the structural foundation of the world. "We are living in an age where we can see a structure, a structure based on atomic structure and motion," he later noted. It is no coincidence that when he was photographed in 1957, he held a copy of Scientific American, whose theme was "Atoms Visualized."

Although Nakamura was interned as an "enemy alien" during WW II, he would go on to achieve a level of success that was virtually unprecedented for any Asian Canadian artist. He sought a deeper truth in the numerical patterns and progressions that give structure to our universe.

Nakamura's attraction to science may also have been related to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Although he rarely discussed these events, they appear to have prompted an interest in the physics behind the atom bomb. Relativity theory and quantum physics are not easy fields for a layperson to grasp, but these fields became hugely popular in the 1950s and 1960s — even covered in daily newspapers — with the beginning of the space race. Nakamura kept many newspaper and magazine stories, from the discovery of a new type of neutrino and antineutrino to the moon landing and radio telescopes. He took copious notes on evolutionary theory, astronomy, and quantum theory, and produced many drawings using surprisingly sophisticated geometry. Nakamura also took an interest in symmetry in physics, such as the discovery of twin subatomic particles, and experimented with reflection and mirroring in his late works.

Kazuo Nakamura, Number Structure and Fractals, 1983, oil on canvas, 71 x 101.7 cm, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa (39855). (National Gallery of Canada. © Estate of Kazuo Nakamura)

The culmination of Nakamura's career was a series of paintings called the Number Structures. The creation of this body of work involved the meticulous calculating and writing out on paper and canvas of numerical sequences in a variety of grid patterns. For him, numbers and sequences revealed universal patterns in nature — such as the rate of growth of animal populations, or the arrangement of scales on a pine cone or petals on a field daisy.

Curiously, although with this group of works Nakamura appeared to create the most abstracted form of his art, his feelings about them were to the contrary: he was exposing great universal truths. As he declared, "You might just say that I am actually a realist."


Dr. John G. Hatch is the author of Kazuo Nakamura: Life & Work, published by the Art Canada Institute. He is an art historian and is currently an associate professor in the Department of Visual Arts at Western University. His research focuses on 20th-century European and American art and theory with a particular interest in the intersections between art and science. He has also authored Paterson Ewen: Life & Work for the Art Canada Institute.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

Say hello to our newsletter: hand-picked links plus the best of CBC Arts, delivered weekly.


The next issue of Hi, art will soon be in your inbox.

Discover all CBC newsletters in the Subscription Centre.opens new window