“Japantown After the Fire, from California Street,” May 18, 1906. Chiura Obata (American, 1885-1975); San Francisco. Watercolor and graphite on paper. Gift from the Estate of Chiura Obata.

SAN FRANCISCO — 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 first-hand 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 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 20-year-old artist fled his wrecked lodgings on Leavenworth Street.

“Street Scene,” April 30, 1906. Chiura Obata (American, 1885-1975); San Francisco. Watercolor and graphite on paper. Gift from the Estate of Chiura Obata.

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 and chief curator 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 18 he left Tokyo for new opportunities in the U.S., 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.

“People Resting in the Presidio,” late April, 1906. Chiura Obata (American, 1885-1975); San Francisco. Watercolor and graphite on paper. Gift from the Estate of Chiura Obata.

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:

A series of ink and watercolor paintings illustrating the impact of Executive Order 9066 that saw Obata’s family’s detention in horse stalls south of San Francisco at Tanforan before their forced move to Topaz incarceration camp in Utah. Significantly, at Topaz, Obata continued to teach and make art, co-establishing an art school there. These are special loans to the Asian Art Museum from the Oakland Museum of California Art, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, as well as from a private collector.

“Watercolors, Devastation, Prayer, and Harmony,” expressing Obata’s reaction to the news of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. In 1946, the pictures were exhibited with other paintings of the internment camps at Haviland Hall on the UC Berkeley campus.

“Passing Rain High Sierra, U.S.A.,” from the World Landscape Series, 1931. Chiura Obata (American, 1885-1975), Japan ink and colors on paper. Gift from the Estate of Chiura Obata.

1922 landscape of Baker Beach and the Marin Headlands washed with a sudden downpour of rain.

“Before Singing” (Talia Sabanieva), the sole portrait included in Obata’s 1930 folio of 35 woodblock prints, “World Landscape Series,” this work represents the legendary Metropolitan Opera soprano Talia Sabanieva (1889-1962), who performed the role of Cio-Cio san in Madame Butterfly during the inaugural season of the San Francisco Opera in 1924. Obata was commissioned to design sets for this production.

“El Capitan: Yosemite National Park, California,” a world-famous woodblock print from Obata’s 1930 “World Landscape Series” and drawn from his 1920s travels in the Sierras.

About the Asian Art Museum

Located in the heart of San Francisco, the museum is home to one of the world’s finest collections of Asian art, with more than 18,000 awe-inspiring artworks ranging from ancient jades and ceramics to contemporary video installations. Dynamic special exhibitions, cultural celebrations and public programs for all ages provide rich art experiences that unlock the past and spark questions about the future.

Information: (415) 581-3500 or www.asianart.org

Location: 200 Larkin St., San Francisco, CA 94102

Hours: Thursdays: 1 to 8 p.m.; Fridays–Mondays: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; closed Tuesdays, Wednesdays, as well as New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving Day, and Christmas Day.

Admission: Free for members, essential workers, SFUSD students, children 12 and under, and active-duty military. $20 for adults and $17 for ages 65 and over; $14 ages 13 to 17, and college students (with ID). Thursday nights (after 5 p.m.) $10 for adults and $7 for ages 65 and over and ages 13 to 17, and college students (with ID).

Access: The Asian Art Museum is wheelchair accessible. For more information regarding access: (415) 581-3598; TDD: (415) 861-2035.

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