Chiura Obata: An American Modern at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts

. May 19, 2018

Salt Lake City – Chiura Obata, a Japanese American artist whose life story is as captivating as his art, is the subject of a major retrospective opening Friday, May 25, at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts (UMFA).

Chiura Obata: An American Modern, the first internationally traveling survey of the artist’s work, features more than 150 watercolors, paintings, prints, and screens, from intimate ikebana studies to grand landscapes of the American West. The exhibition includes more than 30 drawings and paintings documenting his forced internment during World War II, including many scenes from the Topaz Relocation Center near Delta, Utah, where he was held 1942–1943. Many images have never been on public display.

“Obata’s faith in the power of art, his devotion to preserving the myriad grandeur of what he called ‘Great Nature,’ and his compelling personal story as an immigrant and an American all make Obata and his art as relevant to our contemporary moment as ever,” says ShiPu Wang, exhibition curator and professor of art history and visual culture at the University of California, Merced.

Born in Okayama, Japan, Obata emigrated to the United States in 1903 and embarked on a seven-decade career, working primarily in California. His rise as an artist paralleled not only the growth of an international American art but also xenophobic laws and the mass incarceration of Americans of Japanese descent during WWII. A leading figure in Northern California’s art community, he was an influential art professor at the University of California, Berkeley, for twenty-two years—a tenure interrupted by more than a year’s internment at the Tanforan Assembly Center in California and at Topaz in Utah, where he founded art schools. He died in 1975.

The exhibition showcases Obata’s rich and varied body of work:
early nihonga (Japanese-style painting) studies from his youth in Japan
illustrations he made as an artist-reporter in San Francisco, including of the 1906 earthquake
playful sumi-e (Japanese ink painting) of animals, plants, people, and places
California landscapes, ink scrolls, and woodblock prints of Yosemite and the High Sierra, for which he is best known
iconic images documenting life as an internee in Utah
vibrant paintings from the post-WWII era that affirm his stature as a modern artist in command of diverse styles and techniques that melded Japanese traditions with European-American modernism.

“Visitors familiar with the UMFA’s collection of western and European landscapes will revel in how Obata celebrates the physical beauty of California and the West, including the stark desert landscape around Topaz,” says Luke Kelly, UMFA associate curator of collections and antiquities, who organized the exhibition for Salt Lake City. “His brush makes the bleakest places the most alluring.”

Obata’s work was featured prominently in “When Words Weren’t Enough: Works on Paper from Topaz, 1942–1945” (2015), the inaugural exhibition for the Topaz Museum in Delta. Obata’s work is also in the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and other institutions.

Chiura Obata: An American Modern was organized by the Art, Design & Architecture Museum at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where it was on view earlier this year. After the show closes September 2 at the UMFA, it travels to the Okayama Prefectural Museum of Art in Okayama, Japan (January 18–March 10, 2019); the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, California (June 23–September 29, 2019); and the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC (November 1, 2019–April 12, 2020).

Generous support provided by the Terra Foundation for American Art. Utah presenting sponsors are Dr. and Mrs. James Ferguson.

The exhibition catalogue, published by the University of California Press and available in the UMFA Museum Store, includes images, scholarly essays, and a selection of Obata’s writings, including a rare 1965 interview with the artist.

This is not a special ticketed exhibition; admission is included as part of Museum general admission.

Related Programs

Chiura Obata: An American Modern | Member Preview Day
Thursday, May 24 | 10 am–7pm | Members Only

“Obata’s Cosmopolitan California” | A talk by curator ShiPu Wang
Thursday, May 24 | 7 pm | FREE to the public
Katherine W. and Ezekiel R. Dumke Jr. Auditorium

“Topaz: Our Stories”
with Kimi Kodani Hill and Friends
Thursday, May 31 | 6:30 pm | FREE
Katherine W. and Ezekiel R. Dumke Jr. Auditorium
Join Kimi Kodani Hill, granddaughter of Chiura Obata, and other descendants of Japanese American internees, as they share their families’ experiences at the Topaz War Relocation Center near Delta, Utah.

Open Studio for Adults: Sumi-e ink Painting
Wednesdays, June 6 and August 1 | 6-8 pm | UMFA education classroom
and
Third Saturday for Families: Sumi-e Ink Painting
Saturday, June 16 | 1–4 pm | UMFA education classroom
Explore the diverse styles of printmaking and painting by Japanese American artist Chuira Obata. Then try your hand at sumi-e— a Japanese technique of blank ink painting that emphasizes the beauty of each individual brushstroke.

Community Meet-up | Chiura Obata: An American Modern
Saturday, June 30 | 8 am at UMFA | 1 pm at Topaz Museum, Delta
Begin the day at the UMFA to see the exhibition Chiura Obata: An American Modern and create art inspired by his unique style of printmaking and drawing. Then make your own way to Delta and the Topaz Museum by 1 pm to see more of Obata’s work. An organized bus trip from the Topaz Museum to the site of the internment camp will follow.

Gallery Talks | Michelle Yee, PhD student in art history, University of California, Santa Cruz PhD
Wednesday, August 29 | TBD

The Utah Museum of Fine Arts is located on the University of Utah campus in the Marcia and John Price Museum Building at 410 Campus Center Drive. The UMFA’s mission is to inspire critical dialogue and illuminate the role of art in our lives. For more information call (801) 581-7332 or visit www.umfa.utah.edu.

Chiura Obata (American, b. Japan, 1885–1975), Grand Canyon, May 15, 1940, watercolor on silk, 17 1/2 x 21 3/4 in., Amberand Richard Sakai Collection

Category: Fine Art News

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