Landmark of the Month (May): Obata's Yosemite (Part II)

Obata’s Yosemite tells the story of Chiura Obata, a Japanese-born artist who visited Yosemite National Park and the Sierra Nevada in 1927. His pictures are amazing, and even more amazing is the story of his life and the events that occurred both before and after his trip to the majestic Yosemite. We will examine his trip and his work first, then look at his life in the next installment.

As mentioned, Obata visited Yosemite in 1927 (he had actually moved to California in 1903; more on that later). Unlike today’s visitor to Yosemite, Obata roamed all over the Sierra Nevada, visiting what are now the Ansel Adams Wilderness Area, the Desolation Wilderness, Tuolumne Meadows, and the East Side of the Sierra surrounding Mono Lake. During this trip, he made approximately 100 drawings in pencil, watercolor and sumi ink.

A portrait of the Obata, made by the great man himself, Ansel Adams.

When Obata’s father died in 1928, Obata returned to Japan and stayed until 1930. During this time, he transformed those California landscape watercolors and sketches into a limited-edition portfolio titled "World Landscape Series (Although titled the “World Landscape Series”, the majority of the prints are views of Yosemite and the Sierra). The prints were published in limited editions of 100 by the Takamizawa Print Works in Japan, and are currently very valuable. In 1930, his works were exhibited at the "Eighty-Seventh Annual Exhibition" at Ueno Park, Tokyo; Lake Basin in the High Sierra won first prize.

Lake Basin in the High Sierra

In addition to being a traditional watercolor painter, Obata also produced woodblock prints. Obata oversaw the process of translating his watercolors into woodblock prints, a process that proved very demanding both in the carving and the printing (in Japan, the technique is called “moku hanga”). Some of his designs required as many as 160 separate impressions.

[I find it somewhat difficult to accurately describe the process of creating a woodblock. For example, let’s say you have a painting of a tree on a mountain above a lake. Using a blank piece of wood, the artist would first carve away everything but the mountain, and after applying paint to the remaining flat surface (which now resembles a mountain), would press surface against the paper to create the “image” of a mountain. The process would then be repeated for the lake, again for the tree, etc etc. This is an extremely complicated process, as each new impression required a new carving to act as the pattern for the paint. For a better explanation of woodcuts, click here.]

The resulting woodblock prints look remarkably similar to Obata's watercolors, with lines like sumi brush strokes and areas of delicately layered color. Here is a piece entitled Evening Glow at Mono Lake, from Mono Mills. The original watercolor is on the left, with the woodblock carving on the right.

Evening Glow at Mono Lake, from Mono Mills

On this wall, there are 20 progressive prints, and each print shows the progression of creating the woodcut.

Here is the finished product:

Evening at Carl Inn

More of his images:

El Capitan, 1930

Life and Death at Porcupine Flat

Before Thunderstorm, Toulumne Meadows. In his notes from June 25, 1927, Obata wrote, "The spotlessly clear blue sky that sweeps high up over the mountain changes in a moment to a furious black color. Clouds call clouds. Pealing thunder shrieks and roars across black heavens. Men stands awestruck in the face of the great change of wonderous nature."

You can see the complete gallery of the “World Landscape Series” here.

Obata's Yosemite features 27 prints and watercolors and a series of progressive proofs. In addition, it includes a series of postcards he wrote his wife while in Yosemite, and a collection of his brushes and ink bottles.

Some of Obata's postcards home during his trip to Yosemite.

Brushes and bottles of watercolor paint.

This display is the first time the artist's prints have been publicly exhibited on the East Coast, and it ends on June 1. If you are coming to see it, you better hurry.

Personally, Ginger & I were fascinated as we walked through the exhibit, probably more fascinated than the ordinary visitor since so much of our past in wrapped around the Yosemite area. We had personally been to many of the places Obata had visited 81 years ago; as historians say, we had a connection. As I began to research into Obata’s personal life, I became even more intrigued. Come back next week for the details of Obata’s life—you don’t want to miss it.

The artist, as a young man.

1 comment:

TonyB said...

His is an amazing story and his watercolors are simplistically beautiful. I really enjoy this PBS moment you offer...