Chiura Obata: American Modern

November 27, 2019 — May 25, 2020

Smithsonian American Art Museum (8th and F Streets, NW)
A watercolor image of Grand Canyon.

Chiura Obata, Grand Canyon, May 15, 1940, watercolor on silk, 17 ½ x 21 ¾ inches, Amber and Richard Sakai Collection.

“I dedicate my paintings, first, to the grand nature of California, which, over the long years, in sad as well as in delightful times, has always given me great lessons, comfort, and nourishment. Second, to the people who share the same thoughts, as though drawing water from one river under one tree.”

—Chiura Obata

Chiura Obata (1885–1975) ranks among the most significant California-based artists and Japanese American cultural leaders of the last century. Born in Okayama, Japan, Obata immigrated to San Francisco in 1903. By then, he was integrating Western practices into his art-making, and continued experimenting with new styles and methods throughout his seven-decade career. Today Obata is best known for majestic views of the American West, sketches based on hiking trips to capture what he called “Great Nature.” Every work is grounded in close observation, rendered with calligraphic brushstrokes and washes of color.

Teaching and community engagement are Obata’s second legacy for American art. As a professor at University of California, Berkeley, and a founder of the East West Art Society, a Bay Area artists’ collective, he facilitated cross-cultural dialogue, despite widespread prejudice against Asian Americans. In 1942, when World War II fears and Executive Order 9066 forced Obata and more than one hundred thousand West Coast Japanese Americans into incarceration camps scattered across the western United States, he created art schools in the camps to help fellow prisoners cope with their displacement and loss.

After the war, Obata returned to his callings as a painter, teacher, and cultural ambassador with scars that brought new emotional force to his work. The works in this retrospective take us on an epic journey in which peaks, valleys, storms, and sunlight may reflect universal challenges to becoming a successful artist as well as the particular struggles and dreams of America’s minority and immigrant communities.

Chiura Obata: American Modern presents more than 150 paintings and personal effects, many on public display for the first time in this tour. The works on view come primarily from private collections, supplemented by a selection of superb woodblock prints from SAAM’s collection.

ShiPu Wang, professor of art history at the University of California, Merced, is the guest curator for the exhibition; Crawford Alexander Mann III, SAAM’s curator of prints and drawings, is coordinating its presentation in Washington, DC. The exhibition’s presentation at SAAM is the final stop of a five-museum tour and the only venue east of the Rocky Mountains. It was previously on view in Santa Barbara, Salt Lake City, Sacramento, and Okayama, Japan.

Public Programs

Book

A monograph, Chiura Obata: An American Modern published by the University of California Press, accompanies the exhibition. Edited by ShiPu Wang, this book includes critical essays about Obata’s work and the historical context for his career by Wang; Asako Katsura, graduate student, Ph.D. program in visual studies at the University of California, Irvine; and Greg Robinson, professor of history at the Université du Québec à Montréal. The book also includes selections from Obata’s writings and a rare 1965 interview with the artist. It is available for purchase ($50) in the museum store and online.

Credit

Chiura Obata: American Modern is organized by the Art, Design & Architecture Museum, UC Santa Barbara, with generous support by the Terra Foundation for American Art. The presentation in Washington, DC is made possible by the Elizabeth Broun Curatorial Endowment, E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation, Gene Davis Memorial Fund, Japan-United States Friendship Commission, and the Elizabeth B. and Laurence I. Wood Endowment.

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