“Witness to Wartime“ shows the many ink drawings and watercolors that artist Takuichi Fujii created while he and his family were incarcerated in internment camps during World War II.

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In the 1930s, the paintings of Seattle artist Takuichi Fujii (1891-1964) were regularly featured in the Seattle Art Museum’s Northwest Annual show and occasionally turned up in group exhibitions in New York and the Bay Area. Artist-critic Kenneth Callahan championed his work. In 1935, SAM director Richard Fuller proposed giving Fujii a one-man show at the museum that never materialized.

The last time Fujii’s paintings were publicly displayed in Seattle was at the 1941 Northwest Annual, which closed in November. Soon after came the attack on Pearl Harbor, followed by President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, directing the West Coast’s entire ethnic-Japanese population to be moved inland to “relocation camps” as a supposed military security measure.

Fujii, his wife and their two teenage daughters were sent first to Puyallup Assembly Center (the Washington State Fairgrounds) and later to Minidoka Relocation Center in Idaho. Fujii kept a precise visual diary of every stage of his internment-camp experience, in both ink drawings and watercolors.

Exhibition Review

‘Witness to Wartime: The Painted Diary of Takuichi Fujii,’ 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. every Third Thursday, through Jan. 1, 2018. Washington State History Museum, 1911 Pacific Ave., Tacoma; $11-$14 (1-888-238-4373 or www.washingtonhistory.org).

In “Witness to Wartime: The Painted Diary of Takuichi Fujii” at the Washington State History Museum, most of those watercolors and a handful of oil paintings are getting their first public exposure, more than 50 years after Fujii’s death. Additionally, a large portion of the diary has been handsomely reproduced in Seattle scholar Barbara Johns’ “The Hope of Another Spring: Takuichi Fujii, Artist and Wartime Witness” (University of Washington Press, 334 pp., $39.95).

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The book and exhibition, together, shed a powerful new light on a troubling chapter in U.S. history. The black-and-white ink drawings of the diary, which runs nearly 400 pages, have both quick-sketch spontaneity and compositional daring. Each drawing comes with a terse summary of what it depicts: conditions, sights seen, incidents. It’s much like a graphic novel in format.

Sometimes all Fujii needs is two words — “View outside,” for instance — to say all that needs saying about being confined for months at a time in a Puyallup cattle stall. Other verbal entries are longer but still understated, letting words and image work together in a powerful way.

“What it looked like when I visited a friend living in Area A” is a good example. Fujii’s point-of-view is that of a straggler following a band of internees shuffling toward a guarded gate. In making the military guard patrolling the gate twice their size, Fujii combines visual transcription with a mind’s-eye enhancement to evoke the fear and intimidation internees experienced.

The diary itself is on display under glass at the museum, open to a nighttime depiction of Minidoka’s Army Military Police headquarters, with an American flag flying overhead.

The 130-odd watercolors, hung salon-style in two small museum galleries, were created in parallel with the diary and offer an even more vivid sense of camp realities. They also flirt with abstraction and expressionism as Fujii uses odd perspectives or distortions to suggest the nervous strain he and his family were under.

In “Minidoka, montage with barbed-wire fence,” all the infrastructure of the camp – barracks, water towers, fences, farm implements – collide at crazy angles and at inconsistent scales, conveying a sense of restless upheaval and uncertainty. In “Minidoka, mess hall abstraction,” Fujii’s stylized human figures almost dissolve into their environment, losing their individuality. Something similar happens in his two renderings (diary drawing and watercolor) of an Idaho sandstorm.

Fujii can be quirky. In one diary entry, he sardonically identifies himself as “The carefree artist.” In an eye-catching watercolor, “Minidoka, drawing by flashlight,” he creates a sense of offbeat immediacy by placing the viewer inside his point-of-view as he does a pencil sketch in his barrack. (An essay by his grandson, included in Johns’ book, confirms he had an eccentric side. In Chicago, where he lived his last years, he made paintbrushes from his wife’s hair and, much to her annoyance, acquired a horned owl as a pet that left its droppings on their furniture.)

The diary and watercolors are distinctive in providing a contemporaneous account by an Issei of internment-camp realities rather than a later recollection by an American-born second-generation Nisei. The detached tone of his captions reads like the musings of a visitor from another planet.

“This is an odd door,” he notes in his diary. “The lock is on the outside. I see that this relocation center is a prison.”

While he’s frank in showing the camps’ crowded conditions, including its communal showers and latrines (“problems with the sewage system every day”), he’s understated in voicing his pain at his loss of personal and family privacy. Johns notes that much of the tension in the camps stemmed from a breakdown of family and social structures. Fujii, without overdramatizing it, captures that.

The Tacoma show is fleshed out with pre-war and post-war paintings that give a broader sense of Fujii’s career. A marvelous self-portrait, where he directs a skeptical over-the-shoulder look at the viewer, dates from 1935. An oil-on-cardboard, “Biomorphic abstraction” (ca. 1940s-1950s), offers a sinuous tangle of elliptical forms in forest-green and tawny colors. A 1950s ink-on-paper self-portrait has an unexpected Hockney quality about it. A later black-and-white enamel-on-canvas, “Abstraction,” has such explosive energy you can almost hear its paint going “Splat!”

“Witness to Wartime” is compelling as both artwork and history. After opening in Tacoma, it’s touring the country.