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, 1940, watercolor on silk, Amber and Richard Sakai Collection

Chiura Obata (1885–1975) is one of the most significant Japanese American artists working in the United States in the last century. Obata’s seemingly effortless synthesis of different art traditions defies the usual division between “East” and “West.” Chiura Obata: American Modern presents the most comprehensive survey of his rich and varied body of work to date with more than 150 paintings and personal effects, many of which are on public display for the first time.

Born in Okayama, Japan, Obata emigrated to the U.S. in 1903. His seven-decade career spanned the period of restricted immigration in the 1920s and 1930s, the incarceration of Japanese Americans in camps in the 1940s, and the post-World War II integration of Japanese art and philosophy into American cultural life. Obata’s work ranges from the traditional to the modern as he navigated a path that united his Japanese training with his American environment. The exhibition includes works by Obata that survey the complex variety of styles, techniques, and genres in which he worked. Among the selections are his nihonga (Japanese-style) studies dating back to his youth and élite training in Japan; intimate paintings from his days as an artist-reporter in San Francisco; woodblock prints that demonstrate his superlative sense of design; large-scale scrolls and watercolors of California landscapes, including his famous Yosemite series; playful sumi-e of animals; still lifes of ikebana (flower arrangements) by his wife, Haruko Kohashi, an artist in her own right; and other works—from small sketches to large screens and hanging scrolls—that demonstrate the variety of his interests. The works come primarily from private collections, supplemented by important institutional loans and a selection of superb woodblock prints from SAAM’s collection.

Obata had the distinction of being the first Japanese art professor at the University of California, Berkeley between 1932 and 1954—a testament to his artistic stature at a time when Asian immigrants were largely marginalized, if not excluded, from public positions. Chiura Obata: American Modern is the first exhibition to foreground Obata's influence as an art teacher through works created as teaching exercises and a case of the artist's tools.

This retrospective illuminates the intense and productive cross-cultural negotiations—in the context of both California modernism and the twentieth-century racial and ethnic relations in the U.S.—that Obata’s life and work exemplify. His faith in the power of art, his devotion to celebrating the grandeur of what he called “Great Nature,” and his compelling personal story as an immigrant and an American are as relevant to our contemporary moment as ever.

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.


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.


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, and the Elizabeth B. and Laurence I. Wood Endowment.