Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

San Francisco, CA


California Palace of the Legion of Honor, photos: John Hazeltine


Great Nature: The Transcendent Landscapes of Chiura Obata

September 23, 2000 - December 31, 2000


The first major retrospective of Chiura Obata's work since 1977, this exhibition presents 100 of the renowned Bay Area artist's sumi-e (Japanese ink and brush paintings), large-scale scrolls, and color woodblock prints, as well as a selection of the artist's own materials, including his brushes, palette, and hand-ground pigments. Obata (1885-1975), who studied painting in Japan from the age of seven, emigrated to San Francisco in 1903, and his earliest works include firsthand renderings of the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906. (left: Chiura Obata (American, 1885­1975), Sunset, Water Tower, March 10, 1943, Watercolor on paper, 15 1/2 x 20 1/2 inches, Collection of the Obata family)

In 1921, Obata co-founded the East West Art Society, which sought to promote cross-cultural understanding through art. This goal was reflected in his embrace of the Nihonga style, which fused traditional Japanese sumi-e ink painting with the conventions of western naturalism. As a popular professor of art (1932-42 and from 1945-54) at the University of California at Berkeley, Obata played a pivotal role in introducing Japanese art techniques and aesthetics that became one of the distinctive characteristics of the California Watercolor School. (left: Chiura Obata (American, 1885­1975), Evening Glow at Yosemite Falls, 1930, Woodblock print, 15 3/4 x 11 inches, Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts)

Obata's most famous work, a portfolio of extraordinary color woodblock prints titled the World Landscape Series-America (1930), was inspired by a trip to the Yosemite Valley and the Sierra Mountains in 1927. Often monumental in composition, yet intimate in their carefully observed details, Obata's luminous landscapes reveal his intensely personal and poetic vision of "Great Nature." This vision was grounded in an underlying Zen philosophy of selflessness that accepts the insignificance of human affairs in relation to the timeless forces of nature. (left: Chiura Obata (American, 1885­1975), Regulations, 1943, Watercolor on paper, 18 x 12 1/2 inches, Collection of the Obata family)

Also included in the exhibition are a selection of works created by Obata while he, his family, and over 8,000 other Japanese Americans were confined in an internment camp in Topaz, Utah during World War II. Obata was the founder and Director of The Topaz Art School, which had 16 artist/instructors who taught 23 subjects to over 600 students. While at Topaz Art, Obata created both reportorial works that serve as a visual diary of the internees' daily life, as well as transcendent works that serve as a powerful and lasting testament to the perseverance of the human spirit when confronted by prejudice.


Editor's note: On January 9, 2006 TFAO volunteer B. A. Hazeltine granted permission to Resource Library to publish the following photograph. One of the opportunities available to TFAO volunteers is photographing on-location scenes that relate to views depicted in works by historic artists. Since 1997 images of thousands of paintings and sculptures have been published in Resource Library in connection with its articles. The images are of a myriad objects in nature including landscapes, marine scenes, architectural structures, and more. Many people are fascinated with viewing the artistic interpretation of scenes through painting or sculpture in proximity to realistic photographs of the same scenes. These juxtapositions are educational for historic and other reasons, are enjoyable to see, and provide a window for further understanding the impression of nature created by the artist. Resource Library's readers further appreciate this photography as art in its own right. Volunteers are invited to survey the images of paintings and sculptures contained in Resource Library and choose related scenes for their photography.


(above: Yosemite Falls, 2005, photo by B. A. Hazeltine, © 2005 B.A. Hazeltine)


Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco in Resource Library.

rev. 1/9/05

Please click on thumbnail images bordered by a red line to see enlargements.

For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 3/23/11

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