The Art of American Landscape by Chiura Obata | Smithsonian Voices


Chiura Obata, El Capitan, nd, watercolor on paper, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Obata family, 2005.17.1, © 1989, Yuri Kodani

When forty students from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor arrived in my “Landscape Art” class in September 2021, they brought their preconceptions about the landscape genre. A year and a half into the COVID-19 pandemic, with many of us back in a physical classroom for the first time, I was struck by the words they associated with ‘landscape’ collected during a classroom survey, including soothing, serene, and peaceful. In their first in-class writing exercise, students were asked to describe a soundscape that they had personally experienced. Many chose to write about popular Michigan vacation sites, others turned to more remote experiences. Each description was positive, but what was most striking was how often the students framed their experience of the landscape around the pandemic. Hometown walks have become spaces of refuge from endless virtual classrooms; a student submitted a detailed description of the trees outside her window, a reassuring constant in a year spent in near complete isolation. While these overwhelmingly positive associations with the landscape were remarkable, they were not unexpected. I created this far-reaching landscape course precisely because it is popular. I wanted students to learn about global landscape traditions that extend their definitions, from ancient wall paintings to early modern Hindu manuscripts. I also wanted them to learn that seemingly benign 19th century painting served as a tool of colonialism and dispossession of Indigenous lands in the Americas.

These goals guided my program planning the previous summer, when I also participated in the Teaching Workshop with Primary Sources from the Archives of American Art. I structured the course so that halfway through the semester we would move into a month-long “case study” of the landscape of what is now the United States. I knew my archival assignment would fall during this case study when my students (many of whom were new to art history) had developed skills such as slow research, visual analysis, and compare/contrast ; visits to the University of Michigan Museum of Art and the Clements Library also introduced them to direct encounters with artwork and archival material. For weeks before the Archives mission, we discussed the Hudson River School and the development of art historical “canons”; we’ve spent time with Thomas Cole’s dire warnings for Jacksonian America and wrestled with Thomas Moran’s paintings of Yellowstone that helped both establish the national park and facilitate its theft from Indigenous peoples. We talked about Robert S. Duncanson (born near Monroe, Michigan) and the different historical interpretations of the art of 19th century black landscape painters. We read Jolene Rickard’s powerful case study “Arts of Dispossession” which presents 19th century Tonawanda Seneca artist Caroline Parker’s beadwork as a Haudenosaunee “landscape” that breaks down the restrictive boundaries of the genre. At this point in the semester, the idea of ​​the Euro-American landscape as a “soothing, serene, peaceful” genre seemed like a distant memory.

Grayscale image of an adult man teaching a children's art class while other children on a bridge in the background watch.

Photograph of Chiura Obata teaching a children’s art class at Tanforan School of Art, 1942 / unidentified photographer. Papers of Chiura Obata, circa 1891-2000, 1942-1945. American Art Archives, Smithsonian Institution.

Enter Chiura Obata. I chose Obata as the center of my Archives mission for practical and artistic reasons. Artistically, it fits comfortably into the landscape genre, with an extensive body of stunning paintings and prints. Yet his style and background may also complicate assumptions of stereotypical American landscape art. Pragmatically, its fully digitized papers are accessible to students with typed documents and transcriptions of handwritten pages. Moreover, although the documents we read were produced decades ago, there is also a sense of chronological closeness for the students. This relative proximity is also powerful because of the context of some of Obata’s landscape paintings: Tanforan Assembly Center in San Bruno, California, and Topaz War Relocation Center in Utah. Immigrating to the United States from Japan, trained in the rich tradition of Sumi-e, Obata’s American landscapes quickly resonated with my students. His love for what he called “Great Nature” is evident in his writings, paintings, and prints, many of which feature places familiar to UM students, such as Yosemite and the Grand Canyon. When I explained that Obata often mixed paints with water on the spot, materially incorporating the landscape into his depiction, I could feel that we were returning to the positive words they associated with the landscape in our early lessons. But, as mentioned above, it is impossible to separate Obata’s American experience from his incarceration, along with more than 100,000 Japanese Americans, under President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, signed on February 19, 1942.

Letter typed with black ink and a watercolor sketch of a sunrise in purple, yellow, orange and red behind blue-purple mountains.  In the foreground of the sketch are buildings and trucks of an incarceration camp.

Letter from Chiura Obata to Mr. and Mrs. Galen M. Fisher, September 26, 1942. Chirua Obata Papers, 1891-2000, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

In April 1942, Obata and his family were forced to leave his home in Berkeley, where he was an art professor at the University of California, for the Tanforan Assembly Center. After months in San Bruno, the Obata family moved to Topaz in September. At both sites, Obata continued to draw and paint, he opened and ran art schools for his incarcerated comrades. He and others produced images of the harsh desert landscape that made the site of their imprisonment beautiful, even serene. Moonlight on Topaz, a 1942 watercolor on silk made for the Japanese American Citizens League and given to Eleanor Roosevelt, is exemplary of Obata’s intricate work of this period. As ShiPu Wang notes in Chiura Obata: A Modern American, there are formal resonances with the artist’s pre-war landscapes (including the medium), but critics might argue that the mist obscures the barbed wire, barracks and watchtower, thus aestheticizing conditions dark and unfair lives. Despite this potential criticism, students immediately connected to the idea of ​​art (landscape in particular) as escape, to the idea of ​​art as therapy. But this connection also presented a pedagogical challenge as I did not want the resilience of Obata’s work and teaching to mask the true oppression and trauma experienced by those incarcerated. Obata’s articles served as an invaluable educational tool in meeting this challenge. While the instances where Obata put a positive spin on Topaz’s harsh conditions stood out to the students, I made sure we also considered the times when he offered candid descriptions of extreme temperatures and dust storms. An April 23, 1943 letter to Eleanor Breed is particularly powerful because Obata attributes her attack by another inmate to the dark surroundings. I also found that documents describing the sheer bureaucracy of life under EO 9066 resonated with students, from letters about shipping art supplies for Topaz, to correspondence with UC Berkeley Provost Monroe Deutsch to arrange references. for FBI and WRA (War Relocation Authority) forms and apply. sabbaticals to cover the period of incarceration.

Watercolor scene of pale blue mountains with a full moon against a dusty blue sky.  The dusty brown and tan terrain has black buildings and a fence in the distance.  The piece is matte linen with a wooden frame with gold accents.

Chiura Obata, Moonlight over Topaz, Utah, 1942, watercolor on silk. Estate of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr., Franklin D. Roosevelt Library Museum Collection. © The Obata family.

Ultimately, the goal of both Obata’s assignment and class discussion was to help students dwell on the complexity of the life and work of this American artist. Obata loved the landscape of the country that treated him so badly; in Topaz in particular, it was both a source of comfort and a constant threat. The learning lab task that I developed from my participation in the Archives workshop serves this purpose by providing students with a research dossier comprising a curated selection of Obata’s articles, Matthew Simms’ description of items in the American Art Journal Archiveand selections from Chiura Obata: A Modern American. The initial assignment asked students to read all the material and then answer a series of prompts as part three of a semester-long reading journal. However, I found that some students in this second-year course still struggled with some basic concepts, such as distinguishing between archival materials and catalog essays. My revised assignment consists of four parts: definitions, annotations, reading log, and exhibit etiquette. The first part asks students to explore the archives website and other sources to come up with working definitions of terms such as archives, documents, and primary source. Meanwhile, annotation allows students to spend sustained time with a document. The Reading Log retains my original format, inviting students to answer general questions about the sources they read and provide specific examples of their choosing. Finally, students write an exhibition label on one of Obata’s silk paintings, Lake basin in the high sierra Where Moonlight on Topaz. This last part asks the students to merge the information from the research file and their own visual analysis; they are also required to refer to an element of the Obata Papers. Ultimately, the students walk away from this assignment, which could easily be transferred to another archival artist, seeing Obata as a complex artist and person, the type of understanding only available through archival material.

This essay originally appeared on the American Art Blog Archives and was supported by funding from the Dedalus Foundation.


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