Serious Moonlight

Untitled (Pier) 1940, Watercolor on paper

I first learned about the artist Chiura Obata (1885-1975) during my visit to Sacramento’s Crocker Art Museum back in September 2018. I shared some images from that visit more recently, in October 2020, showing some of his drawings and other pieces (including the one above) that particularly impressed me. So I was very happy to discover Moonlight, a large piece that was completely new to me, when I visited the deYoung in San Francisco this past August.

Moonlight, ca. 1930; Ink and color on silk

In this landscape, Chiura Obata demonstrated the combined influences of impressionistic Japanese moro-tai painting and American Impressionism and Tonalism. Here, washes of black sumi ink poetically evoke, rather than topographically depict, the ethereal landscape of coastal California. This stylistic unification of East and West reflects Obata’s commitment to a global view of art, which he promoted by cofounding the East West Art Society in 1921.

A native of Japan who immigrated to San Francisco in 1903, Obata was the most prominent practitioner in the Bay Area of the modern nihonga (Japanese painting) movement, which sought to reconcile the practices of traditional Japanese art making with contemporary European schools of art. Accompanied by his wife, Haruko Kohashi, who helped to introduce ikebana (the art of flower arrangement) to the Bay Area, Obata gave hundreds of public lectures and demonstrations that exposed audiences to the nuances of Japanese art and aesthetics — deYoung Museum information card

Still, to be honest, although I loved gazing at the supremely evocative work on silk, it was the display of the artist’s working materials that really caught my eye. Not only was the arrangement pleasing to the eye, but I couldn’t help feeling humbled just thinking about the beauty and profound truths those items had expressed through his skilled hands.

Describing the appropriate mental state for an artist, Obata wrote, “I still tell my friends that when you paint, concentrate your power; make your posture correct, keep your mind very calm, imagine in your mind what you want to paint. You quietly grind the sumi. Where you grind the sumi, the suzuri, is the shore, and where the ink pools is the ocean. You keep all your ideas in that ocean.”

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