San Francisco, June 16 — How do artists react to catastrophes? How do they capture feelings of desperation and hope in the wake of natural—and manmade—disaster? On view only at the Asian Art Museum, Bearing Witness: Selected Works by Chiura Obata showcases this singular artist’s firsthand depictions of the 1906 earthquake and fire as well as his experience of the forced incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. Born in Japan, but with a life and career deeply entwined with the Bay Area, Obata (1885-1975) is renowned as a 20th-century master who merged Japanese painting techniques and styles with modern American abstraction.
On view June 23, 2022 through February 2023, Bearing Witness invites audiences to follow the evolution of Obata’s distinctive vision, from some of his earliest, rarely seen, watercolors, to his famous prints of California landscapes, to his somber consideration of wartime’s devastation.
Remarkably, Obata’s 1906 works presenting the scenes of a ruined San Francisco are among the only on-the-spot painted renderings of the earthquake’s aftermath and the refugee communities that sprang up across the city and around the Bay Area. The watercolors in this series begin on April 25, exactly a week after the earthquake and three days after the raging fires subsided. Binding holes across the top of the paper show that the pages were once part of a sketchbook—perhaps the same one Obata grabbed on the morning of the earthquake when the twenty-year-old artist fled his wrecked lodgings on Leavenworth Street.
The earthquake sketches include several locations of special significance to Asian Americans living in San Francisco at that time: the ruins of Japantown where it meets a similarly ravaged Chinatown; newly homeless residents of Asian descent in encampments in Lafayette Park and, possibly, the Presidio; the Chinese community that fled to Oakland where they were assigned to a racially segregated section of the refugee camp at Lake Merritt called the Willows.
“These are very specific experiences, recorded in an impressionistic and immediate way, which convey the emotions of that moment,” explains Laura Allen, senior curator of Japanese art at the Asian Art Museum. “This sensitivity imbues not only Obata’s celebrated, powerful landscapes from later decades, but finds a tragic echo in both his deeply felt depictions of his and his family’s incarceration in the 1940s and his reaction to the bombing of Hiroshima. Obata’s compositions always find a unique beauty through balance, but above all he provides an eyewitness to events that continue to impact us today.”
Born in Japan in 1885, Obata trained for four years as a professional painter, achieving national recognition in his late teens. At age eighteen he left Tokyo for new opportunities in the United States, ultimately landing in San Francisco. From his arrival in 1903 until the early 1930s, he painted and exhibited distinctive California landscapes and supported himself with part-time work as an illustrator and decorator, painting murals for stores like Gump’s and the set design for stage productions, including some of the first sets for the San Francisco Opera in 1924. In 1932 he accepted a position teaching painting at UC Berkeley, where he worked until 1942 when he was forcibly relocated with his family to the Tanforan and Topaz incarceration camps.
As the artist said in a 1965 interview: “Even during those times, I was never pessimistic, I never lost hope. I just learned that however violent is nature, like an earthquake, there is always a way to live if we try our best.”
Along with 22 ink sketches and watercolors from 1906, recently gifted to the museum from Obata’s estate, highlights in Bearing Witness include:
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