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How Chiura Obata combined the traditions of Japanese and American art

The painter made a career that melded the oriental and occidental styles.

By Michael Prodger

In 1903, after a two-week boat journey, Chiura Obata arrived in the US from Japan. He intended to stay for just a short while before heading on to Paris, where he wanted to learn more about modern Western art. He never made it to Europe, however, settling instead in the San Francisco Bay area, home to innumerable Japanese immigrants, and making a career that melded the oriental and occidental styles.

By the time he left Japan, Obata (1885-1975) was already an accomplished artist. He had started formal training in the sumi-e (ink and brush) tradition at the age of seven, and at 14 – having run away from home to avoid military school – had moved to Tokyo to continue his apprenticeship. After winning a prestigious award he told his father he was crossing the Pacific to further himself: “The greater the view, the greater the art; the wider the travel, the broader the knowledge.”

In San Francisco he found work as an illustrator for Japanese-language newspapers, and as an opera set designer and decorator for department stores. Obata was there in 1906 when an earthquake devastated the city and he left sketches recording some of the ruins. His adopted home was not always welcoming: racial slights were common, he was jeered and spat at in the street, and after an altercation with a group of construction workers, during which he hit one on the head with an iron bar, he was charged with attempted murder. The case was dismissed when the judge pointed out that eight against one wasn’t a fair fight.

The incident was an aberration. Obata was a gentle man with a deep belief in harmony. “I have a strong desire to contribute to a peaceful life through painting,” he once said. “The peace of humankind, this is something really precious.” This conviction lay behind his role as a founder of the East West Art Society in 1921, an organisation for promoting cross-cultural exchange.

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It was, however, in the most archetypal American scenery that he found the motifs which satisfied his desire to fuse Japanese and American art. In 1927 he spent six weeks sketching in the Yosemite Valley and around the Sierra Nevada. There, he felt for the first time that he had “come in contact with a larger Great Nature”. He made more than 100 drawings and ink paintings during the trip, using river water to mix his pigments so that the landscape became a physical part of the work. He called the experience “the greatest harvest for my whole life and future in painting”.

The forests and sheer rock faces of Yosemite were for him the scroll paintings of the mountains of China and Japan made real, and they had a near-mystical effect. “The coyotes howl in the distance,” he wrote. “The moon arcs across the sky. The trees are standing here and there and it is very quiet. You can learn from the teachings within this quietness.”

In 1928, when his father died, Obata returned to Japan for two years with his wife and children. While in Tokyo, he turned 35 of his California watercolours into woodblock prints for a “World Landscape” series. He used 32 carvers and 40 printers in an effort to capture his own emotions in the images, and the intensity of the work is particularly apparent in this hallucinogenic print, Setting Sun on Sacramento Valley, California, 1930.

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It is an image at once sinister and euphoric, with the flayed and flaming sky – conjured with calligraphic flourishes – resembling the spikes and flickerings of traditional Japanese dragon imagery (and the wings of William Blake’s Great Red Dragon). Obata wrote of one especially bright moon that “it evoked in me the days of the gods” and they are here too. This end-of-days flaring, full of boiling oranges, yellows and mauves and caught somewhere between the abstract and the natural, is illumination fit for deities.

It is also tempting to see the picture as prophetic. Despite his love for the US, Pearl Harbor led to Obata’s art supplies shop being shot at, he became one of 120,000 citizens of Japanese descent interned under Executive Order 9066, and he lost his teaching post at the University of California at Berkeley. These travails didn’t daunt him, however, and nor did the grimness of the camps. “If I hadn’t gone to that kind of place I wouldn’t have realised the beauty that exists in that enormous bleakness,” he said of the Topaz camp in the Utah desert. He occupied himself by establishing art schools for fellow inmates, teaching some 1,500 students in all while producing work of his own. He was released after a fellow inmate, believing he was a spy, assaulted him so severely he needed to be hospitalised.

After the war, Obata resumed his work at Berkeley, having finally become a US citizen in 1954. Determined to do whatever he could to mend relations between his two countries, he started taking Americans on cultural tours of Japan. “You must always see with a big vision, and if you keep your mind calm there will be a way, there will be a light,” he said. One of the sites he always visited with his charges was Hiroshima, another place where the sky had burned with unearthly fire.

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This article appears in the 27 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Our Fragile Future