1885 – 1975
Theme/Style – Figurative art, portraits, landscapes, marine life, still lifes, urban scenes
Media – Watercolors, sumi-e (Japanese ink and brush paintings), color woodblock prints, scrolls
Artistic Focus – Chiura Obata’s artistic skill and his reverence for nature, especially the California landscape, was manifested in his adoption of the Nihonga style, which fused traditional Japanese sumi-e ink painting with the conventions of western naturalism. He moved freely between the classic delicacy of calligraphic painting and Modernist watercolors and color woodblock prints. Underlying all of Obata’s work was his Zen philosophy of selflessness in relation to the timeless forces of nature, giving his renderings, regardless of their subject matter, a beauty that seems to radiate.
Career Highlights –
- Chiura Obata was born in Sendai, Japan in 1885. Descended from Japanese artists and aristocrats, he began taking drawing lessons at age seven from a local master artist. At age 15 he enrolled in the Bijitsuin Art Institute in Tokyo.
- Obata moved to the United States in 1903, settling in San Francisco where he worked as an illustrator for the city’s largest Japanese language newspaper. During the 1906 earthquake and fire Obata created watercolor sketches of the city, and from 1912 until 1927 he illustrated for several other local Japanese publications.
- From the 1920s until 1950, Obata exhibited widely, including at the San Francisco Art Association, and had solo shows at the EastWest Gallery in San Francisco in 1928 and the Oakland Art Gallery in 1932. In 1921, Obata co-founded the East West Art Society, which sought to promote cross-cultural understanding through art.
- In 1930 Obata created his most famous work, a portfolio of color woodblock prints entitled the World Landscape Series – America, inspired by a trip to the Yosemite Valley and the Sierras in 1927. The prints were exhibited nationwide and around the world.
- In 1932 Obata moved to Berkeley, where he became a popular professor of art at the University of California, playing a pivotal role in introducing Japanese art techniques and aesthetics that became one of the distinctive characteristics of the California Watercolor School.
- Obata’s career was interrupted in 1942 when he and his wife Haruko, a noted expert in Japanese flower arranging, were evacuated to the Tanforan and Topaz relocation camps. During his internment he produced over 500 sketches and paintings, which later were documented in the book Topaz Moon. During his confinement in Topaz, Utah, Obata also organized the Topaz Art School for the 8,000 Japanese Americans there.
- On his return to Berkeley in 1945, Obata continued to teach at UC until his retirement in 1954, and exhibited widely into the 1970’s.
- In 1975, Chiura Obata passed away at the age of 90 in Berkeley. In 2000 the de Young Museum in San Francisco held a retrospective of 100 of his ink and brush paintings, large scrolls, and color woodblock prints.
Bibliographic references are available upon request.