Tyler Green
Art-focused Journalism by Tyler Green

Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

Day of Remembrance: Chiura Obata

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On this day in 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, condemning Japanese-Americans to internment in camps during World War II. It is one of the darkest moments of our history. To mark the annual Day of Remembrance, I’ll be featuring some artworks related to Japanese-American internment.

First up is the work of Chiura Obata, a Japanese-American artist and educator. The image at the top of this post is of his Farewell Picture of the Bay Bridge (1942) at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. Below it is A Sad Plight, October 8, 1942, Topaz, Utah (1942), also from the de Young.

Obata came to the United States at age 17. In 1932 he joined the University of California, Berkeley art department faculty and taught at Cal until 1953 (except for during WWII). His numerous works include early sketches of the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, to intense watercolors, prints and paintings of the Sierra Nevada high country. (Lake Basin High Sierra (ca. 1930) from the collection of the de Young is at the bottom of this post. At right is Obata’s 1930 woodcut Before the Rain, Mono Lake, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.)

In addition to teaching and painting, Obata and his wife Haruko ran an art supply store in downtown Berkeley. They were forced to close it shortly after Pearl Harbor when the store was the target of gunfire. Shortly thereafter, the Obatas were sent to the Tanforan internment camp in San Bruno, on the San Francisco peninsula. While at Tanforan, Obata and other artists organized an art school (which Dorothea Lange photographed). When the Obatas were moved to a camp in Topaz, Utah, Chiura took the art school there. Over 600 students were enrolled in the school. The students’ chronicling of life at Tanforan and Topaz is especially important as detainees were not allowed to own cameras. (Read more about the school’s history at the Topaz Museum website.)

After the war, the Obatas initially settled in Saint Louis, where Chiura and Haruko’s son Gyo pursued a career in architecture. (Gyo Obata would go on to become one of America’s most prominent architects. His projects have included the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, the Xerox PARC research center in Palo Alto, Calif.)

Recent exhibitions of Obata’s work have been held at the Saint Louis Art Museumat the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Oakland Museum of California. The de Young presented an Obata retrospective in 2000. Obata died in 1975.

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  1. Bruce Burton says:

    The Saint Louis Art Museum also recently closed an exhibit of Chiura’s work including an exceptional work titled “Setting Sun of Sacramento Valley”. Great post.

  2. […] As I noted in this post, today is the Day of Remembrance marking the anniversary of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s signing of Executive Order 9066, which condemned Japanese Americans to internment for the duration of World War II. This is the second of two posts in which MAN notes the day. […]

  3. David Warner says:

    There’s a book called “Topaz Moon: Chiura Obata’s Art of the Internment” that covers Obata’s stay in the internment camps and is illustrated with many of his drawings and paintings. It’s well worth reading.

  4. EO 9066 was used to force out German Americans and Italian American as well. The most famous of whom was baseball great Joe DiMaggio’s father. There were case of German Americans forced off the East Coast. as well. German and Italian Americans were interned. 60,000 German and 3,000 Italian. The way in which they were interned is very different than most Japanese experience. German experience in my opinion was worse. The average German and Italian internment went like this:An FBI Agent arrests an immigrant. No charges are ever filed. The immigrant, mostly a man, is locked up somewhere. No access to a lawyer or a court. The wife and children are allowed no contact. The neighbors are left with the impression that your husband is a spy.Bank accounts were frozen and stay at home mother is expected to keep the mortgage paid and the kids fed. If the mother is an immigrant, relatives would be afraid to help. Kids would get into fights often. Homes were lost. Sometimes the woman was taken and not the man. The most important thing to come out of the German American experience is the Supreme Court case Ludecke v. Watkins. Ludecke was a German refugee who was interned. The government intended to deport him after the war. He challenged the deportation. The Coujrt said, “Whenever there is a declared war between the United States and any foreign nation or government, or any invasion or predatory incursion is perpetrated, attempted, or threatened against the territory of the United States by any foreign nation or government, and the President makes public proclamation of the event, all natives, citizens, denizens, or subjects of the hostile nation or government, being of the age of fourteen years and upward, who shall be within the United States and not actually naturalized, shall be liable to be apprehended, restrained, secured, and removed as alien enemies. The President is authorized, in any such event, by his proclamation thereof, or other public act, to direct the conduct to be observed, on the part of the United States, toward the aliens who become so liable; the manner and degree of the restraint to which they shall be subject” Further, “This Alien Enemy Act has remained the law of the land, virtually unchanged since 1798″ In other words, it has been legal to intern and deport since 1798. Ludecke is far more powerful and dangerous than Korematsu and the Japanese ignore it. Korematsu is relocation, not internment.

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