Art

The Japanese-American Painter Who Chronicled Early 20th-Century Life in the US

Chiura Obata’s stirring paintings invite us to consider the representation of persecution and distress from the point of view of an immigrant in the early 20th century.

Chiura Obata, “A Snow Storm Nearing Yosemite Park Government Center, February 1939” (all image courtesy the Art, Design & Architecture Museum at UC Santa Barbara unless otherwise noted)

SANTA BARBARA — You may not have heard of Chiura Obata, but he was a beloved and influential figure among Northern California artists in the early 20th century. Known for his stunning painted landscapes of the West Coast, Obata merged traditional Japanese ink drawing with a modern hand to produce works that are unpretentiously captivating. But Obata also created stirring depictions of life in the United States that invite one to consider the representation of catastrophe, persecution, and distress from the point of view of an immigrant in the early 20th century — in 1903, Obata emigrated from Japan to the US as a young man. These are the themes that take center stage in Chiura Obata: An American Modern, on view at UC Santa Barbara’s Art, Design & Architecture Museum through April 29. Curated by ShiPu Wang, the exhibition presents a survey of Obata’s artistic output from his early days as an illustrator in San Francisco to his reflections on the atomic bomb.

Formally trained in his native Japan, Obata was a life-long practitioner of Japanese ink painting (sumi-e) and created charming depictions of animals and plants with precise brushwork. After emigrating to California, Obata worked as a magazine and newspaper illustrator, and his style shifted. On the morning of the devastating 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, Obata set out with his sketchbook to capture the wreckage. These sketches of crumbled buildings and upturned trees feel like a street photographer shooting from the hip — quickly composed but capturing the heart of what is in front of him. While Obata’s style changed over time, his intention to chronicle life as he saw it remained constant throughout his life. Indeed, Obata’s work is like a documentary in brushwork, in which his subject matter reflects his lived experiences.

Chiura Obata, “Grand Canyon, May 15, 1940” (detail), watercolor on silk, 17 1⁄2 x 21 3⁄4 in. (Amber and Richard Sakai Collection)

Obata’s paintings of the western landscape and grandeur of nature are majestic. The energy of his compositions counters the stillness of his earlier ink drawings, the lines full of the potential for movement as if they are scenes in a stop-motion animation. In “Grand Canyon,” a 1940 watercolor on silk, Obata creates a contrast between red and blue to emphasis the canyon’s depth and horizon’s expanse. Unlike artists like Arthur Dove or even Georgia O’Keeffe, Obata’s landscape has a delicate touch that is concerned less with the boldness of its abstract shape than with the texture and impressiveness of the range.

Chiura Obata at his exhibition of paintings by Rokuichi and Chiura Obata at the California Palace of Legion of Honor (1931)

Quickly gaining recognition in Northern California’s artistic circles, Obata became an art professor at UC Berkeley, where he taught for 22 years. He frequently sketched across campus, capturing students coming and going from class or studiously working in the library. Obata fills the page with dense scenes full of figures without ever muddling the composition.

Chiura Obata, “Untitled [UC Berkeley students]” (ca. 1930s), ink on paper, 15.5 x 20.75 in.
In 1942, Obata was forced into a Japanese internment camp. There he drew fervently, sketching individuals arriving at the camp or the artificial barracks in the landscape. The works hark back to Obata’s work as an illustrator. They are emotional in tone, but explicitly legible, his intention to document how persecution is lived by those experiencing it. In a series of three paintings from 1945, Obata reflects on the devastation in Japan after the fall of the atomic bomb. The paintings are the most powerful of the exhibition: dark, with deep hues of red and black, the artist’s normal precision is replaced with an abstract fervor of lines. They are historical memory steeped in emotion and encapsulated in paint.

Chiura Obata, “Devastation” (1945), watercolor on paper, 18.5 x 13 in.

Obata’s art is a missing story in the history of modern painting. Traveling to Utah, Sacramento, and Okayama, Japan, Chiura Obata: An American Modern is a testament to the artist’s seven-decade career capturing the people and landscapes of California and beyond. As the United States reflects on the 75th anniversary of Japanese Internment, and in a moment in which immigrants once again fight for representation and acceptance, the exhibition sheds an important light on the beauty and hardship that comes with being an immigrant in the United States.

Chiura Obata, “Untitled, Pier, January 11, 1940”

Chiura Obata: An American Modern continues at the Art, Design & Architecture Museum at UC Santa Barbara (552 University Rd, Santa Barbara) through April 29.

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