An Issei artists reunion at the de Young Museum

“Block #9 Topaz” by Matsusaburo Hibi. image courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

One hundred years ago, three Japanese artists — Matsusaburo Hibi (1886-1947), Chiura Obata (1885-1975) and Teikichi Hikoyama (1884-1957) — were living in San Francisco and actively exhibiting in the San Francisco mainstream art world in venues such as the San Francisco Art Association.

Today you have the opportunity to see paintings by Hikoyama and Obata side by side on display in the first-floor gallery of the de Young Museum in the city’s Golden Gate Park, with their friend Hibi’s painting in an adjoining room.

From 1996 to 2016, under the visionary curatorship of Timothy Burgard, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco acquired the works of these three Issei artists as well as Kibei artist Taneyuki Dan Harada (1923-2020). Burgard has worked to expand the collection of American art at the de Young Museum, and this autumn all four artists have paintings on display in the permanent galleries.

In 2000 for one of the closing exhibitions at the old de Young Museum, Burgard curated an Obata retrospective titled “Great Nature: The Transcendent Landscapes of Chiura Obata.” The exhibit affirmed Obata’s significance in the art historical record and introduced a new generation to his California landscapes as well as illuminating his vision of Great Nature as the inspiration for life and art for all people.

Three large Obata paintings entered the permanent collection of the Fine Arts Museum at this time, including “Lake Basin in the High Sierra” (ca 1930). Obata kept his artist’s gaze trained intently on the beauty of the California landscape no matter the challenges he faced as an immigrant artist.

“Mt. Tamalpais” by Teikichi Hikoyama. image courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Hikoyama’s “Mt. Tamalpais” (1927) is currently exhibited next to Obata’s “Lake Basin in the High Sierra.” Hikoyama is credited as the first Japanese woodblock printing artist creating work in California. He would return to Japan in 1933. A fellow Japanese artist once wrote, “Hikoyama’s works … consist of an expression of passion that burns like a flame.” He was among the guests at the lively Obata household on Sutter Street in San Francisco’s Japantown, a gathering place for artists, intellectuals, and friends, where he signed the Obata guestbook with a sketch.

Obata, Hikoyama, Hibi and other artists formed the East West Art Society in 1921, a multiethnic art association that was the first of its kind in California. “At least in the world of art there should be no barriers between the East and the West,” recalled Obata. Their exhibits were a show of unity with American artists during a time when blatant xenophobia and institutionalized racism were targeting Asians in California.

Two paintings by Topaz artists, Hibi and Harada, are on view in an adjacent gallery in the new exhibit, “A Sense of Loss: Art and Empathy,” also curated by Burgard, which addresses the challenging and unprecedented past few years that Americans have been facing.

“Many people have expressed feelings of being held captive by forces beyond their control or understanding. Almost everyone has experienced a sense of loss, most profoundly of fellow human beings, but also of normalcy. As always, art will play an essential role in recording these historic events, while also articulating what can be gained through the embrace and expression of empathy,” Burgard says.

Hibi was a prolific artist in the San Francisco area, and he and Obata were close friends. During the upheaval of the forced relocation and incarceration of World War II, they immediately worked together to form the Tanforan Art School and later the Topaz Art School. They developed a fine arts curriculum that they felt rivaled any art school. Hibi wrote, “I am now inside barbed wires but still sticking to Art — I seek no dirt of the earth — but the light in the star of the sky.”

In 1943, during a time of heightened tensions in the Topaz concentration camp, Obata was physically attacked and later released for his safety. Obata had spent a year in the camps, but Hibi would remain and direct the art school until 1945. He and his family were released but Hibi died two years later in New York City. His widow, Hisako, gave Hibi’s painting “Block #9 Topaz” (1945) to Obata. This painting was displayed prominently in Obata’s studio until his death, no doubt in honor of his friend and in remembrance of their partnership both as artists and educators living under extraordinary circumstances.

“Barracks” by Taneyuki Dan Harada. image courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Harada was born in San Francisco and spent seven years of his childhood in Japan. He studied painting for the first time at the Tanforan and Topaz art schools. His journey through incarceration from age 18 lasted four years while he was held in four confinement sites — Tanforan, Topaz, Leupp, and Tule Lake — where he continued to paint as well as exhibit. Having renounced his citizenship under the divisive period of the “loyalty questionnaires,” his U.S. citizenship was eventually restored in 1959.

His remarkable journey as a young artist is symbolized in his reflective painting “Barracks” (1944). He said, “I used barracks as a motif in most of my paintings. For me the barracks became the symbol of incarceration.”

These artworks are scheduled to be on exhibit through spring 2022. Museum visitors can also view the classic “Mother Earth” silk painting by Obata in the second floor gallery. And the Hung Liu installation “Golden Gate” is on view until Aug. 7, 2022 in the central court as a fitting homage to a beloved artist, also an immigrant from Asia, who passed away in August.

The de Young Museum is located at Golden Gate Park/50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive in San Francisco. Open Tuesdays through Sundays, 9:30 a.m.-5:15 p.m. https://deyoung.famsf.org; (415) 750-3600.

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