Obata Chiura (小圃千浦, November 18, 1885 - October 6, 1975) was born Obata Zoroku in Okayama, Japan and grew up in Sendai. He emigrated to California in 1903, where he pursued and taught painting and printmaking, leaving behind a highly distinctive and important body of work. His biography is summarized at our Obata Biography page.
Although many of Obata's paintings and watercolors feature natural realism, he was more interested in capturing kiin seidô ("living moment": 気韻生動), i.e., the essential nature of a scene. This quality of observation and perceptiveness was transmitted through the artist's intuitive connection with the spirit of the subject. Kiin seidô is evident in Obata's painting through the interplay of wet and dry brush strokes, and simplified forms and empty space — enhanced with pale colors. The energy of Obata's brushwork is an expression of living natural beauty.
Obata's watercolor is a fine example of decorative naturalism expressed through his "living moment" idiom — here with complex associations. The white tsubaki (camellia: 椿) blooms in winter in Japan and is linked therefore with the months of November and December on traditional floral calendars (matching the month in which Obata painted his camellia). Moreover, the tsubaki holds historical significance for the Japanese, as it has been used for centuries to produce dyes, oils, and perfumes. Just as important, Camellia sinensis is a species of evergreen shrub or small tree whose leaves and leaf buds are used to produce tea. Thus the tea ceremony comes to mind when observing tsubaki in nature or in art. Obata's painting impressively renders the thick leaves and bulbous white flower in a tactile and "living" manner.
There is s sobering association with this painting, dated as it is on December 3, 1941, only four days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The following year, Obata and his family would be forceably removed to the Tanforan internment camp, drastically disrupting their lives.
- Janice Driesbach and Susan Landauer: Obata's Yosemite: The Art and Letters of Chiura Obata from His Trip to the High Sierra in 1927, Yosemite Association, 1993, pp. 36, 54, and 56.
- Merrily Baird, Symbols of Japan: Thematic Motifs in Art and Design. New York: Rizzoli, 2001, p. 47.