Smithsonian American Art Museum Major Retrospective Chiura Obata: American Modern

By Editorial Team on November 26, 2019
Chiura Obata, Grand Canyon, May 15, 1940, watercolor on silk, 17 ½ x 21 ¾ inches, Amber and Richard Sakai Collection.
On view November 27, 2019 through May 25, 2020.

Chiura Obata (1885–1975) ranks among the most significant Japanese American cultural artists and figures of the 20th 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.

“Chiura Obata: American Modern” is on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum from Wednesday, Nov. 27, through Monday, May 25, 2020. This showing concludes the exhibition’s five-museum tour and is its only venue east of the Rocky Mountains. Featuring more than 150 works, it includes many paintings from private collections on public display for the first time. Exclusive to this venue, the exhibition will include a selection of superb woodblock prints from the museum’s collection, all donations from the artist’s family in 2000 and 2005. ShiPu Wang, professor of art history at the University of California, Merced, is the curator for the exhibition; Crawford Alexander Mann III, the museum’s curator of prints and drawings, is coordinating the presentation in Washington, D.C.

“The Smithsonian American Art Museum celebrates American Art within a dynamic web of global conversations,” said Stephanie Stebich, the museum’s Margaret and Terry Stent Director. “Fulfilling that mission, we are proud to showcase Chiura Obata, whose work demonstrates the rich contributions of immigrant artists to the visual culture of the United States and the enduring importance of nature and landscape to American identity.”

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.” These depictions of jagged rocks, rushing streams and weather-beaten trees reproduce carefully observed details—often based on sketches made during hiking and fishing trips—with bright colors and gestural brushstrokes that convey moods and emotions.

“Obata seduces us with the luxurious colors and dramatic scenery of California’s coast and mountains,” Mann said. “He is the successor of great American landscape painters like Thomas Cole and Albert Bierstadt, but he breaks rules with his abstract and modern style and his seamless blend of Asian and Western traditions.”

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. The exhibition also includes watercolor floral still lifes—many depicting arrangements by his wife, Haruko, a noted ikebana master—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 more than a hundred thousand West Coast Japanese Americans into incarceration camps, he created art schools in the camps 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. The exhibition’s final pictures are increasingly expressive visions that translate a lifetime of dreams, disappointments and triumphs into familiar elements of the natural world. By combining these with Obata’s early autobiographical works, 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.

“Obata’s highly personal interpretations of beloved American scenery are equally inspiring and challenging,” Mann said. “He invites us all as viewers to see ourselves reflected in our nation’s natural splendor and to remember our connections to our fellow humans and to this planet we share.”

The museum’s main building is located at Eighth and F streets N.W., above the Gallery Place/Chinatown Metrorail station.