Noguchi’s Memorials to the Atomic Dead

June 2, 2021 – August 15, 2021

Noguchi’s Memorials to the Atomic Dead is occasioned by the return of Isamu Noguchi’s unrealized model for a cenotaph memorial, originally proposed in 1952 for Hiroshima Peace Park and re-envisioned in the 1980s, to its original installation in Area 6 of the Museum. Companion displays in Area 5 and Area 3 survey Noguchi’s proposals and sculptures exploring the consequences of the use of atomic weapons against humanity in Hiroshima and beyond.

In 1982, hoping to have his Memorial to the Atomic Dead erected in Washington, DC, “as a significant protest against the Bomb,” Noguchi told a supporter, “All in all the times seem right for a good look at our position here in this world.”




In 1947, two years after American bombs destroyed the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a deeply disillusioned Isamu Noguchi (1904–1988) made a model in sand on a board for a proposed cenotaph to humanity in the form of an abstract human face formed from earth and so large that it would be visible from Mars. The idea was to demonstrate to anyone visiting the solar system in the future—after we annihilated ourselves—that sentient creatures once inhabited this planet. “A requiem,” he called it, “for all of us who live with the atom bomb.”1

Three years later, in 1950, on his first trip to Japan in almost two decades, Noguchi was given the opportunity to hold an exhibition at Mitsukoshi Department Store’s flagship location in the Nihombashi neighborhood of Tokyo. It requires no great stretch to interpret the exhibition he produced in just a few weeks of feverish work as a comprehensive response to the first use of atomic weapons against humanity. The bombs the United States detonated on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (nicknamed, with a callousness that shocks the conscience, “Little Boy” and “Fat Man”) are believed to have killed or wounded as many as a quarter of a million people.

The exhibition featured a garden of what might be viewed as deformed and mutant ceramics; maimed bodies, melted objects (Love of Two Boards), ghosts, and skeletons (Cage Vase); a wall relief suggesting the remains of a lost civilization (recalling his own Sculpture to Be Seen from Mars, 1947, unrealized); and a giant modeled sculpture intended for a garden at Keio University (Tokyo) designed to memorialize his father Yonejiro Noguchi (1875–1947) entitled Mu (“Nothingness”), 1950, that resembles an ancient/modern device for concentrating power on a massive scale.

On a blackboard on one wall of the gallery, Noguchi drew a fallen temple bell in flames and inscribed it with lines from a poem by his father, “Kane ga naru” (“The Bell Rings”):

The bell rings
The bell rings
This is a warning!
When the warning rings,
Everyone is sleeping.
You too are sleeping.

Yonejiro Noguchi’s poem recalls both Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Bells” (1849)—upon which Noguchi had recently based a dance with the choreographer Ruth Page in which, allegorically, love is murdered and the world destroyed by a King of Ghouls attended by black cavorting bells—as well as its source, John Donne’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” (1624):

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

The other focal point of these meditations on death and destruction were two variations of a proposal for a monumental Bell Tower for Hiroshima (1950) that he had conceived without having visited: one represented in a photograph and the other by a model. The model was made of dowels and small ceramic bells that look like streaking bombs suspended in the skeletal superstructure of a bomb-blasted building.

The proposal was never realized, but it was seen. In the summer of 1951, a year after the exhibition, Kenzo Tange (1913–2005), the architect responsible for the master plan for Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, invited Noguchi to visit Hiroshima, “to which,” as Noguchi explained he was  “drawn, as many Americans are, by a sense of guilt.”2

“I wished,” he went on, “somehow to add my own gesture of expiation.”3 In a later account he described his first visit to the city this way:

I felt a little strange as an American, walking into this, absolutely nothing there. And all the graves upturned and everything all knocked over. And all the traces of the bomb: the buildings are burned; the shadows of people who had been sitting there reflected on the granite; everything had been burned. And so this was [my] answer to the atomic bomb, that is to say, I wondered about the atomic bomb and came closer to the reality of it in Hiroshima. Having traveled around the world looking at ancient art, I came to the reality of [it in] Hiroshima.
Isamu Noguchi, interview with Dore Ashton, September 13, 1978, 62. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_WRI_047_005.
  • Isamu Noguchi in the ruins of Hiroshima, 1951.
    The Noguchi Museum Archives, 08846.1. ©INFGM / ARS
  • Genbaku Dome, Hiroshima Peace Memorial; Hiroshima, 1951. Photo: Isamu Noguchi.
    The Noguchi Museum Archives, 08846.3. ©INFGM / ARS
  • Hiroshima, c. 1951. Photo: Isamu Noguchi. The Noguchi Museum Archives, 05211. ©INFGM / ARS
  • Hiroshima, c. 1951. Photo: Isamu Noguchi. The Noguchi Museum Archives, 08848.2. ©INFGM / ARS
  • Hiroshima, c. 1951. Photo: Isamu Noguchi. The Noguchi Museum Archives, 08828.3. ©INFGM / ARS
  • Hiroshima, c. 1951. Photo: Isamu Noguchi. The Noguchi Museum Archives, 09670.4. ©INFGM / ARS

On the basis of that visit, Tange recommended Noguchi to the Mayor of Hiroshima, Shinzo Hamai (1905–1968)—the city’s first elected leader and the prime mover in its conceptualization as a City of Peace—to design handrails for two of the bridges connecting the island on which the park sits to the rest of the city. The bridges were approved and constructed quickly—due in large part to the fact that the access they provided were essential to the overall reconstruction effort. (Noguchi’s handrails were delayed somewhat by needing to be redesigned higher for safety.) The road of which the bridges were a part—a major new east-west artery authorized by the 1949 law laying out the reconstruction of the city—was named Peace Boulevard by popular vote, as were [East] Peace Bridge and West Peace Bridge. Noguchi entitled the handrails for the east bridge Ikiru (To Live) and the west bridge Shinu (To Die). They were renamed Tsukuru (To Build) and Yuku (To Depart) part way through construction in order to disambiguate them from a new movie by Akira Kurosawa (Ikiru, 1952).

  • Isamu Noguchi, Blueprint for Hiroshima Bridges, 1951–52. The Noguchi Museum Archives, 00235. ©INFGM / ARS
  • Isamu Noguchi, Blueprint for Hiroshima Bridges, 1951–52. The Noguchi Museum Archives, 00236. ©INFGM / ARS

The handrails consist of stacked tubes that run the full length of each bridge, and then swoop around and down at the ends to terminate in the ground. Each end also features an end piece that Noguchi shaped himself. The ends of the eastern bridge, To Live/To Build, are hemispheres that resemble the heads of heliotropic flowers turned to the sun. These Noguchi characterized as “round like a globe, or sun.”4 At the ends of the western bridge, To Die/To Depart, those same blossoms have died and dropped, or the sun has set, and all that’s left is a desolate stalk. Of these Noguchi said that “the one that looks like a skeletal boat derives from the idea of the Egyptian boats for the dead—for departing as we all must.”5

In November of 1951, presumably pleased with Noguchi’s fast, subtle work on the handrail designs, Tange and Hamai asked Noguchi to take on an additional task: the complex program for the design of the Park’s centerpiece, a cenotaph to the dead.6 Seeing the opportunity to use his extraordinary position as a human bridge between Japan and the United States, Noguchi threw himself into the project. In short order he had put together a concept for a ceremonial platform surmounted by a thick granite arch, the legs of which would extend underground, like part of an integrated circuit, into a chamber holding the cenotaph itself.

A cave beneath the earth (to which we all return). It was to be the place of solace to the bereaved—Suggestive still further of the womb of generations still unborn who would in time replace the dead. Above ground was to be the symbol for all to see and remember.
Isamu Noguchi, “A Project: Hiroshima Memorial to the Dead,” Arts & Architecture 70, no. 4 (April 1953), 16. The Noguchi Museum Archives, BM_JOU_0257_1953.
  • Isamu Noguchi, Memorial to the Dead, Hiroshima (unrealized model), 1952. Photo: Isamu Noguchi.
    The Noguchi Museum Archives, 152017. ©INFGM / ARS
  • Isamu Noguchi, Memorial to the Dead, Hiroshima (unrealized model; detail of underground chamber), 1952.
    The Noguchi Museum Archives, 08842.5. ©INFGM / ARS

The arch was designed to evoke traditional Japanese funerary sculpture (per the architectural program), but it also resembled the hemispherical shape of an atomic fireball in its first milliseconds. The plan was quickly rejected by the responsible officials in Hiroshima. Many reasons were given, and Noguchi had his own theories. But ultimately he understood, and it is easy to see, why it would not have been politic just six and a half years after the city was destroyed by an American bomb to hand the honor of designing a memorial to the dead to an American citizen, no matter how well-known or respected in Japan.

In place of Noguchi’s rejected scheme an arch designed by Tange in the form of a concrete shell on a concrete platform, without the underground sepulcher, was erected. That shell, like many bare concrete structures, aged poorly over the years, and periodically friends of Noguchi’s in Japan would ask him about revisiting his original idea to replace the Tange arch. The political will and funds never materialized, but in 1982 Noguchi did draw up plans for a replacement arch similar to the one in his original proposal.

  • Isamu Noguchi, Memorial to the Atomic Dead, 1952/1982 (Revised drawing June 26, 1982). Graphite on tracing paper.
    The Noguchi Museum Archives, 9949. ©INFGM / ARS

About the same time Noguchi was approached about placing a memorial on a site in Washington, DC. The relevant part of the proposed bill to authorize its creation described it as a “symbol of our shared concern for the moral and material significance of nuclear arms, and of the compelling need to find ways to settle future disputes peacefully.”7 In a solicitation letter to Agnes (Gund) Saalfield, written to explain the plan in more detail, Noguchi expanded the concept of the original memorial to include the “atomic dead of Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” saying he believed “Such a gesture of responsibility of the initial use of the Bomb will I believe be appreciated throughout the world,” and that from his point of view “placing the Memorial in America would in itself serve as a significant protest against the Bomb.” With a characteristically deep barb, he ended by noting that “The identity of victors and vanquished becomes utterly clear.”8 Saalfield replied saying that she thought it “a good idea both morally and artistically.”9 Noguchi made a model for the project, reconceived as a Memorial to the Atomic Dead, which then became part of the original installation of his Museum in Area 6.

Among the many possibilities Noguchi seriously explored at the time was to use Memorial to the Atomic Dead as part of a memorial to J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904–1967), director of Los Alamos Laboratory during the Manhattan Project and one of the creators of the atomic bomb. Oppenheimer’s subsequent ambivalence about vesting humanity with such power, and the political problems that created for him, made him a martyr to the anti-nuclear movement. In a 1965 television interview, Oppenheimer remembered the Manhattan Project team’s reaction to the first atomic bomb test, code-named “Trinity”:

We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.
J. Robert Oppenheimer on the Trinity test, 1965, Atomic Archive. Retrieved May 23, 2008.

Noguchi’s sculptures Trinity (1945), in Area 3, a planar, three-dimensional impression of matter atomizing, and Vishnu (c. 1960), in Area 3, which resembles the ball of plutonium-239 at the heart of “the gadget” (the Trinity test bomb design), attest to the depth of his concern for the Pandora’s Box of atomic science. For Noguchi, that bomb, and the ever more terrifying proliferation of bombs that followed, became the ultimate symbol of his deepest fear: that we were forsaking our fundamental bond with nature—falling out of scale with nature, as he put it. In exchanges with the chairman of a committee to establish a memorial to Oppenheimer, Noguchi wrote,

As you may have guessed, as a Japanese-American I have long been distressed by that great imponderable atom and its use in the last war. Years ago I was prevailed upon to make a proposal for Hiroshima in its memorial. However, nothing came of this and the menace continues to grow.
Isamu Noguchi, Letter to Charles L. Critchfield, November 5,1982. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_PROJ_068_003.

And a few months later:

The consequences of man’s breaking nature’s code will continue to grow, an awareness which will demand our thinking through how to cope and how to explain and how to stop what seems inevitable. I put it badly, but as you grace me with your confidence I would like to do what I can.
Isamu Noguchi, Letter to Charles L. Critchfield, March 10, 1983. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_PROJ_068_009.

Memorial to the Atomic Dead could still be realized. The bell still tolls. As Noguchi wrote to Peter Putnam, the principal promoter of the Washington, DC, plan, “All in all the times seem right for a good look at our position here in this world.”9

Dakin Hart
Senior Curator

1 Isamu Noguchi, The Sculpture of Spaces (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1980), 18.

2 Isamu Noguchi, Isamu Noguchi: A Sculptor’s World (New York: Harper & Row, 1968; Göttingen, Germany: Steidl, 2004), 32. 

3 A Sculptor’s World, 32.

4 Katherine Kuh, “An Interview with Isamu Noguchi.” Horizon 11, no. 4 (March 1960), 111.

5 “An Interview with Isamu Noguchi,” 111.

6 See Isamu Noguchi, “A Project: Hiroshima Memorial to the Dead,” Arts & Architecture 70, no. 4 (April 1953), 16, for his account of the program and project.

7 “Bill authorizing erection of Memorial for the Dead of Hiroshima in Washington, DC,” 1982. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_PROJ_067_005.

8 Isamu Noguchi, Letter to Agnes Saalfield, May 30, 1982. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_PROJ_067_007.

9 Isamu Noguchi, Letter to Peter Putnam, March 17, 1982. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_PROJ_067_006.

Related Exhibition

Christian Boltanski, Animitas 
May 5–September 5, 2021

Christian Boltanski’s Animitas, a sound work consisting of 180 small bronze bells on steel stems, will fill the Noguchi Museum’s garden with a “music of lost souls.” Boltanski’s extended video Animitas, La Forêt des Murmures (2016), which documents another, permanent version of the work on the island of Teshima in Japan, will also be on view.

Noguchi’s Memorials to the Atomic Dead is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, in partnership with the City Council and by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.