a japanese take on american landscapes: chiura obata at saam

Chiura Obata (1885-1975) is one of the most important California-based artists and Japanese cultural leaders of the last century.  He received training in classical Japanese sumi-e ink painting in Tokyo, but began to integrate Western practices into his art-making after he immigrated to San Francisco in 1903.  He continued to experiment with different styles and methods throughout his career.

Today the artist is best known for majestic views of the American West, based on hiking trips to capture what he called “Great Nature.”  We went to see an exhibit of his work at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) in December.

Chiura Obata was born Zoroku Sato in 1885, in Okayama, Japan.  He was raised by his older brother, Rokuichi Obata, a professional artist, who gave him the family name.  He chose a new first name, Chiura – which means “thousand bays.”  This was a common practice among Japanese art students.  His brother sketched a picture of him reading.


Son Chiura Obata Reading by Rokuichi Obata

Obata’s childhood sketchbooks showed an early mastery of brush painting with watercolor and ink. Obata trained in the conservative nihonga (Japanese-style painting) rather than the impressionism that was popular at the time.  This method preferred subjects such as flowers, animals, landscapes and scenes from history and the theater.


Teenage practice book – 1890s

In 1912, Obata married Haruko Kohashi, also an artist and teacher.  She was a master of ikebana, the Japanese practice of arranging flowers in which lines and layers convey moods and poetic messages.  In 1940, she published an ikebana instruction manual, which Obata illustrated.

Beginning around 1918, Chiura Obata created paintings to use as covers and interior illustrations for JAPAN, a travel magazine for American audiences and customers.

Obata returned to Japan in 1928 and transformed some of his watercolors into woodblock prints. Below is one of a progression of these prints of “Evening at Carl Inn” (1928-30).


“Evening at Carl Inn”

Obata’s first solo show in 1928 led to wide demand for his work.  He was invited to teach in the Art Department at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1932. In 1947, he published a folder of prints reproducing watercolors of landmarks at the University of California, Berkeley, campus.


Campanile (UC Berkeley), 1934

Below are some of Chiura Obata’s tools and materials: a paint box, an ink tray, pigment bottles, brushes, stamps, and minerals used to prepare the pigments.  He often mixed his paints using water collected from streams during summer hikes in the Sierra Nevada.

Obata was an avid traveler who loved to explore the natural beauty of California and other western states. He painted numerous watercolor and ink landscapes outdoors while camping and fishing with other artists.


Evening, about 1930s


Alma, August 6, 1922


Mountain Stream in Autumn, Happy Isles, 1937


Mountain Mist (Gilroy Hot Springs), about 1930s




Grand Canyon, May 15, 1940


part of the World Landscapes Series, 1930


Life and Death, Porcupine Flat, 1930


Morning Breeze, High Sierra, 1945


landscape on screen

I loved the artist’s drawings of interiors and his sketchbooks.

As a professor and founder of the East West Art Society, a Bay Area artist’s collective, he opened cross-cultural dialogue despite widespread prejudice against Asian Americans. In 1942, when the U.S. government succumbed to World War II fears, Obata and more than 100,000 West Coast Japanese Americans were forced into incarceration camps.  Obata created art schools in the camps to help prisoners deal with their displacement and imprisonment. Between April 1942 and May 1943, Obata produced more than a hundred drawings and paintings documenting the government’s forced removal of ~120,000 Japanese Americans from their home on the West Coast.


Topaz War Relocation Center by Moonlight, about 1943

Obata responded to the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Japan, in August 1945, with a trio of large watercolor paintings: Devastation, Prayer, and Harmony, showing a cycle of destruction and rebirth.


Devastation, 1945


Harmony, 1946

At the end of the war, Obata was asked to resume his art professorship at the Berkeley campus, where he taught until his retirement in 1954.  The painting below captures the moment of his return home in November 1945 after more than three years of imprisonment and displacement.


Dusk: East Bay Bridge, November 1945

*Sunday, December 15, 2019*

The exhibit will continue through May 25, 2020.

(Information about this exhibit came from signs at the exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.)


“PHOTOGRAPHY” INVITATION:  I invite you to create a photography intention and then create a blog post for a place you have visited. Alternately, you can post a thematic post about a place, photos of whatever you discovered that set your heart afire. You can also do a thematic post of something you have found throughout all your travels: churches, doors, people reading, people hiking, mountains, patterns, all black & white, whatever!

In this case, I was intrigued to visit the exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum to see a Japanese-American artist’s take on American landscapes.  In addition, I’ve always loved Japanese paintings, and I love Obata’s sketches of the internment of Japanese-American citizens during World War II.

You probably have your own ideas about this, but in case you’d like some ideas, you can visit my page: photography inspiration.

I challenge you to post no more than 20-25 photos and to write less than 1,500 words about any travel-related photography intention you set for yourself. Include the link in the comments below by Wednesday, February 5 at 1:00 p.m. EST.  When I write my post in response to this challenge on Thursday, February 6, I’ll include your links in that post.

This will be an ongoing invitation, every first, second, and third (& 5th, if there is one) Thursday of each month. Feel free to jump in at any time. 🙂

I hope you’ll join in our community. I look forward to reading your posts!