The Great Unknown and the Unknown Great: Chiura Obata: American illustrator

bioline_Greg Robinson

One area of United States culture in which Asian Americans have been able to make a substantial contribution is the visual arts. Yet visual artists and their production have remained fairly obscure in discussions of Asian American experience, at least as compared with literary creators and performing artists. To be sure, even compared with members of other minorities, Asian Americans had particular difficulties. They had few avenues of philanthropic support or official patronage. The public arts programs of the New Deal, which hired masses of artists, restricted employment to American citizens and thereby discriminated against Asian immigrants, who were barred from naturalization on racial grounds. By the same token, mainstream art publications paid scarce attention to the work of Asian American artists (with rare exceptions such as Isamu Noguchi, Dong Kingman, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, and later Nam Jun Paik) and they were in turn passed over in literature by mainstream art critics and historians, even those who made a specialty of studying Western-style Asian art. Hawai‘i, where so many Asian American artists lived, was isolated from other communities and had few galleries or museums to inspire creation.

Given the limited financial support available to Asian American artists in the way of art sales and commissions from their own ethnic communities, they most often were obliged to take outside employment in order to survive. They taught in art schools, occupied day jobs (Seattle-based artists Kenjiro Nomura and Kamekichi Tokita worked as sign painters) or relied on support from family members. A significant number of artists turned to commercial work. Asian American photographers ran portrait studios, while ceramicists produced tableware. During the 1930s, Walt Disney employed an entire stable of ethnic Asian designers and animators, such as Tyrus Wong, Gyo Fujikawa and Robert Kuwahara. Eddie Imazu worked as a draftsman and art director at MGM. The most celebrated Asian artist in Hollywood was the cinematographer and photographer James Wong Howe.

One commercial field in which Asian American artists were able to gain a particular footing was that of illustration. Book and magazine decoration offered ethnic Chinese and Japanese artists both financial support and a means of inserting themselves into mainstream culture and art circles. Beginning with pioneer figures such as Genjiro Yeto (aka Genjiro Kataoka) and Gazo Foudji in the early 20th century, and going on through Taro Yashima, Gyo Fujikawa and Miné Okubo after World War II, a series of Japanese American artists distinguished themselves by their contributions on the page.

The case of the Japanese-born California artist/educator Chiura Obata, a towering figure of Asian American art, is illuminating in this regard. Obata remains primarily celebrated as a specialist in landscapes, many painted on silk, that combined classic Japanese sumi brush painting with aspects of contemporary Western art. He likewise is known for his numerous watercolors and ink sketches. Yet, Chiura Obata’s years as a book and magazine illustrator need to be considered in any assessment of his art.

Chiura and Haruko Obata in St. Louis, June 1968.
courtesy of the Obata family.

Obata began work as an illustrator in the early years of the 20th century, and retained an interest in the medium throughout his working life, producing thousands of designs. Indeed, one might say that his apprenticeship as an American artist was as an illustrator (plus commercial designer), since it represented his exclusive public exposure during the formative years of his career in the United States: it was not until after 1920 that he displayed any of his paintings to outside critics, and his first solo gallery show took place only in 1928. His production in the field of illustration merits investigation and analysis. Though in a different manner than his paintings, Obata’s illustrations reveal his particular gift for combining Japanese forms with western modernist techniques. Obata’s illustrations cover a wide variety of subjects, both Asian and Western, demonstrating his versatility as well as his mastery of detail. His capacity to produce a wide spectrum of images on demand and to infuse them with his own vision demonstrates his masterful creativity.

What is more, discussion of Obata’s career as an illustrator help reshape our essential vision of the artist. In his self-presentation and publicity, Obata expressed his artistic creed in almost monkish terms. In public interviews, he insisted that he waited to display his art until he had completed 10,000 pictures, on the theory that until an artist had produced such a portfolio he had nothing to say. Even then, Obata continued to insist that he would not sell his work, as that would cheapen it. The fact that he was making his living as a commercial artist and producing hundreds of designs for mass-market publication every year, even as he was expressing his refusal to engage with the art market or to compromise the purity of his work, does invite us to seek a more complex and nuanced understanding of Obata’s artistic vision.

Obata began work as an illustrator during his early years in San Francisco. There are conflicting stories as to just when he started. What is certain is that by 1912 Obata was working as a regular illustrator for the city’s two Japanese-language community newspapers, Shin Sekai and Nichi Bei Shimbun newspapers. In 1915, Obata was hired as an illustrator for Japan: Overseas Travel Magazine. Japan, published by the Toyo Kisen Kaisha steamship company, was a periodical that featured chatty travel reports about Japan and Asia, discussions of Japanese art and culture, and serious articles on Japanese society by such figures as scholar Yamato Ichihashi and journalist K.K. Kawakami. During the dozen years that he worked for the magazine as regular illustrator and cover page designer, from 1915 to 1927, he produced hundreds of cover and interior designs.

Cover art for Japan: Overseas Travel Magazine. courtesy of Greg Robinson

What Obata’s covers reflect most strongly is his appreciation for the prints of Japanese masters such as Hokusai. His images are lavish in their colors, and feature unusual juxtapositions of shades: red against mint green, or brown mixed with gray. Even as he wrote for Japan, Obata also turned to book publishing. His first effort was the illustrations he provided for George Turner Marsh and Ronald Temple’s “The Lords of Dawn” (1916), a novel set in Japan. Obata’s illustrations for the book took off from traditional Japanese styles, but he also included an image of embracing naked lovers riding on waves and clouds, seemingly melting into each other’s arms. Not only does this drawing point to affinities with French symbolists such as Odilon Redon, but its frank sensuality suggests Aubrey Beardsley.

In the spring of 1942, Chiura Obata was removed from Berkeley under Executive Order 9066. He was forced to close the studio he had built, and to store his artworks with UC Berkeley president Robert Sproul. Obata and his family (except for his son Gyo, who relocated to Washington University in St. Louis) were confined at Tanforan Assembly Center, and then at Topaz. While in camp Obata created an art school that instructed a reported 600 inmates, and he did paintings of camp scenes. He does not seem to have undertaken further commercial illustration work after the war, when he returned to Berkeley, or after his retirement in 1954. The extraordinary exhibition of Obata’s art that is on display through May 25, 2020 at the Smithsonian Institution’s American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., will perhaps allow viewers an opportunity to better comprehend the importance, and also the diversity, of Obata’s contributions.

(Editor’s Note: The preceding column was adapted from Greg Robinson, “Chiura Obata: Illustrator,” in ShiPu Wang, ed. Chiura Obata: An American Modern, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2018, pp. 16-21.)

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., author of “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans” and “A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America,” is a professor of history at l’Université du Québec À Montréal. He can be reached at robinson.greg@uqam.ca. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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