December 2, 2019 - Smithsonian American Art Museum - Chiura Obata: American Modern
December 2, 2019

Smithsonian American Art Museum

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

Chiura Obata: American Modern
November 27, 2019–May 25, 2020

Chiura Obata's America: December 5, 6pm, Live online at AmericanArt.si.edu/webcasts.

Smithsonian American Art Museum
Eighth and F Streets N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20004
USA
Hours: Monday–Sunday 11:30am–7pm

T +1 202 633 1000

americanart.si.edu
Twitter / Facebook / Instagram / YouTube

Chiura Obata: American Modern
November 27, 2019–May 25, 2020

Chiura Obata's America: December 5, 6pm, Live online at AmericanArt.si.edu/webcasts.

Smithsonian American Art Museum
Eighth and F Streets N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20004
USA
Hours: Monday–Sunday 11:30am–7pm

T +1 202 633 1000

americanart.si.edu
Twitter / Facebook / Instagram / YouTube

Chiura Obata (1885–1975) ranks among the most significant California-based artists and Japanese American cultural leaders of the twentieth century. Best known for his majestic views of the American West, Obata brought a distinctive trans-Pacific style to the arts community of California as an artist and teacher. The major traveling retrospective Chiura Obata: American Modern presents the most comprehensive survey to date of his acclaimed and varied body of work, from bold landscape paintings of the Grand Canyon and Yosemite National Park to intimate drawings of his experiences of the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II.

The presentation at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) is the final stop on a five-city tour in the U.S. and Japan, and is the only venue east of the Rocky Mountains.

The exhibition features more than 150 works, including many paintings from private collections on public display for the first time. Exclusive to this venue, the installation includes a selection of superb woodblock prints from SAAM’s collection, all donations from the artist’s family in 2000 and 2005. Obata’s personal effects, including paintbrushes and pigments, are on display to provide an intimate look into his artistic process. 

ShiPu Wang, professor of art history at the University of California, Merced, organized the exhibition; Crawford Alexander Mann III, curator of prints and drawings at SAAM, is coordinating the presentation in Washington, DC. 

Born in Okayama, Japan, Obata received formal training in classical Japanese sumi-e ink painting in Tokyo. By the time he immigrated to San Francisco in 1903, he was integrating Western practices into his art-making. Obata continued experimenting with new styles and methods throughout his seven-decade career, using calligraphic brushstrokes and washes of color to capture what he called "Great Nature."

In addition to his landscape paintings, Obata created ink brush drawings of animals, some to illustrate manuals he published on sumi-e technique and the spiritual foundations of Japanese painting, as well as watercolor floral still lifes, and images of campus life at the University of California, Berkeley, where he taught art from 1932 to 1954. 

Teaching and community engagement are Obata’s second legacy for American art. As a professor 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 approximately 120,000 West Coast Japanese Americans into incarceration camps scattered across the western United States, he created art schools to help fellow prisoners cope with their displacement and loss. Drawings narrating the Obata family’s painful years in the Tanforan and Topaz camps comprise a poignant central chapter of this exhibition.

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. This retrospective invites reflection on the universal challenges to becoming a successful artist as well as the particular struggles faced by America’s minority and immigrant communities. 

Lecture: Chiura Obata’s America
What is art’s role in tumultuous times? On December 5, at 6pm, ShiPu Wang discusses how Obata’s World War II imagery and words reveal a more nuanced picture of the Japanese American incarceration. Wang also explores how we may expand notions of American modernism when considering Obata’s imagery of "Great Nature," produced by an immigrant during the Exclusion Era, within the American landscape tradition. Wang also will highlight the Archives of American Art’s newly acquired Chiura Obata papers.
 

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, the Japan-United States Friendship Commission, and the Elizabeth B. and Laurence I. Wood Endowment.

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