Layer by Layer: An extraordinary look into the creation and conservation of Chiura Obata masterpiece at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts

Nearly three years ago, the Utah Museum of Fine Arts’ (UMFA) already widely respected Japanese art collection expanded with the acquisition of 35 works by Chiura Obata (1885-1975), one of the most significant Japanese American artists of the twentieth century, thanks to a generous gift from the Obata estate.

Undoubtedly, the announcement acquisition thrilled the museum community but then the staff was stunned that the four-panel screen Two Running Horses (1932) was far more than its evident display of Obata’s masterful command of Japanese sumi-e technique, which was rendered seamlessly with his grasp of American art techniques and aesthetics. In 2022, the UMFA received the first of two grants from the Bank of America Art Conservation Project to treat what was Obata’s largest format creation of this subject. 

Gallery view of “Chiura Obata: Layer by Layer”
at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts 2024.

The Nishio Conservation Studio in Washington, D.C., discovered full-size charcoal underdrawings for the original and that the screen’s interior layers comprised scores of practice sketches by Obata and his students, which were made during the summer of 1932. Yoshi Nishio established the studio in 1995, which is well known for conserving Asian paintings, folding screens (byōbu) and hanging scrolls (called kakemono). In an interview with International Arts and Artists, Yu-Ting Hsu from Taiwan, who was working in an internship at the studio, spoke about being involved with the conservation of the Horses screen. The screen had been split into two sections and there was widespread discoloration and evidence of foxing, which are spots of brown and rust color typically observed on paper that contains traces of iron or other substances and the spots occur when the paper is exposed to undesired temperatures or humidity levels. “We started with removing the painting from wooden border, then removing the backing paper. After consolidating the color, we bleached the foxing spots and washed the painting,” she added.  

The cumulative impact of this extraordinary discovery is now on view at the UMFA in Chiura Obata: Layer by Layer, which will continue through Sept. 8. This special one-room exhibition is stupendous in documenting the genesis, creation and conservation of the Horses screen. The preparatory drawings are as astounding as the completed work. Obata’s artistic confidence and meticulous assurance of technique emanate in every layer represented in this process.

Conservation process images provided by
Nishio Conservation Studio, Washington DC.

The Obata exhibition is the perfect companion to the equally prestigious Pictures of Belonging traveling exhibition, which features the work of  Miki Hayakawa, Hisako Hibi, and Miné Okubo, Japanese-American artists who were contemporaries of Obata. 

Nearly 50 years after his death at the age of 89, UMFA has played a large role in magnifying Obata’s artistic legacy. In 2018, UMFA hosted a traveling show of Obata’s work, which was magnificently received by many visitors and patrons. That show covered more than 70 years of Obata’s prodigious output, featuring more than 150 watercolors, paintings, prints, and screens, from intimate ikebana (floral arrangements) studies to the majestic landscapes of the American West.

An overarching takeaway from the focus on the Two Running Horses screen is the indisputable endorsement that places Obata in the top elite category of 20th Century American Modernism. The screen is quintessential iconography of the American West.

Conservation process images provided by
Nishio Conservation Studio, Washington DC.

At the time of the 2018 show, The Utah Review noted, “Obata’s art and life comprise the epitome of resilience, an artistic meta-narrative of the immigrant’s faith in the American experiment that still remarkably supersedes generation after generation of ugly xenophobic and bigoted expressions and actions. Emphasizing the creative impetus for a 1965 work titled Glorious Struggle, a sumi-e Japanese ink painting on silk, Obata recalled the struggles of the Japanese Issei in an interview, especially after the crushing “burst” of Pearl Harbor. ‘I heard the gentle but strong whisper of the Sequoia gigantea. ‘Hear me, you poor man. I’ve stood here more than 3,700 years in rain, snow, storm, and even mountain fire still keeping my thankful attitude strongly with nature – do not cry, do not spend your time and energy worrying. You have children following. Keep up your unity; come with me.’ So, in the past, all such troubles moved like a cool fog. In deep respect I present my painting to our Nisei and the future generation.’”

The Horses screen was included in the gift consisting of drawings and watercolors Obata created from the 1930s to 1943, including many he made to record his incarceration at Topaz in Utah during World War II. UMFA also purchased three pieces showing The University of Utah campus that the Obata estate donated in  2018—drawings that Obata made after delivering a talk at the University, on a rare occasion when he and his wife were allowed to briefly leave Topaz.

Gallery view of “Chiura Obata: Layer by Layer”
at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, 2024

Most importantly, the work is a testament to pure grace. A viewer can appreciate the parallels between the integral appreciations of nature’s blessing as Obata captures for posterity in his work and the just as dignified eloquence of appreciation for nature in the works of Hayakawa, Hibi and Okubo, as seen in the adjacent Pictures of Belonging exhibition. 

When the Obata gift to the UMFA was announced, Kimi Hill, Obata’s granddaughter, said in a prepared statement, “We are thrilled that art lovers will have the opportunity to appreciate and study these works by our grandfather.” She added, “Because many of these artworks were created in Utah, we hope people will be inspired to learn the history of wartime incarceration and go visit the actual camp site in Delta as well as the Topaz Museum. Obata never wavered from the inspiration he found in nature and his faith in the power of creativity. The solace that Obata found in the beauty of the Utah desert landscape was profound. We appreciate UMFA for wanting to share his vision with the people of Utah.”

In 2023, UMFA received a second grant from the Bank of America Art Conservation Project to conserve the underdrawings onto new framework, to complete preparations for the current show. The recently conserved screen, the full-scale under-drawings, and a selection of the practice drawings are on display in the Museum’s American and regional gallery. A short film also gives visitors a look into the conservation process. Additional conservation funds for the underdrawings were provided by the Ann K. Stewart Docent and Volunteer Conservation Fund.

For more information, see the UMFA website

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