Thursday, December 26, 2019

Chiura Obata's Miniature Prints

I'll get to Obata's miniature prints in a moment, but I wanted to alert readers to a worthwhile exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) in Washington, D.C. entitled "Chiura Obata: American Modern, which runs until May 25, 2020.

Grand Canyon (May 15, 1940) by Chiura Obata
Amber and Richard Sakai Collection
(watercolor on silk)

The Smithsonian show is the final stop of a five-museum tour, and the only venue east of the Rocky Mountains.  Guest curated by ShiPu Wang, professor of art history at the University of California, Merced, the exhibition was previously on display in Santa Barbara, Salt Lake City, Sacramento, and Okayama, Japan.  The D.C. presentation has been coordinated by Crawford Alexander Mann III, SAAM’s curator of prints and drawings, and additionally draws upon SAAM's own substantial holdings of Obata woodblock prints, paintings, and artifacts.

Lake Basin in the High Sierra (1930) by Chiura Obata
Proof circa state 99 of 107 impressions before the
title, the carver's name and printer's name were removed
Personal Collection
(colored woodblock print).

 
Full Moon, Pasadena, California (1930) by Chiura Obata
Personal Collection
(colored woodblock print)

This is SAAM's second Chiura Obata (1885-1975) exhibition, having mounted a show devoted to Obata's Yosemite prints in 2008.   All of Obata's woodblock prints published by Takamizawa Print Works in 1930 (including a few non-Yosemite subjects) can be found here on the Hanga.com website.  Collectively, they are among the most interesting woodblock-printed landscapes of the early Showa period, remarkable not only for their power and beauty but also for demonstrating Obata's range as an artist.   Some are naturalistic, some are expressionistic, and one, Foggy Morning, Van Ness Avenue, is manga-like in its presentation.  In Full Moon, Pasadena, California, the Takamizawa carvers and printers have produced a work of art that, to the untrained eye, looks more like an original watercolor than a woodblock print.

 
Point Lobos, Monterey, California (1922) by Chiura Obata
Private Collection
(color ink on silk two-panel screen)

 
Maiden of Northern Japan (1931) by Chiura Obata
Crocker Art Museum
(mineral pigments on silk)

The current exhibition includes some the Yosemite prints featured in the prior exhibition (including the original watercolor and a complete set of progressive proofs for Evening at Carl Inn), but also surveys Obata's entire artistic career, from his childhood sketchbooks, to his illustration work, to his sumi ink and color paintings and screens.

 
 Landslide (1941)
Private Collection
(sumi and watercolor on paper)

 
 Talking Through the Wire Fence (July 1942) by Chiura Obata
Private Collection
(sumi on paper)

 
Dust Storm, Topaz (Mar. 13,1943) by Chiura Obata
Private Collection
(watercolor on paper)

In particular, the exhibition covers Obata's depictions of internment camp life at the Tanforan Assembly Center and the Topaz War Relocation Center during World War II, and his depictions of the aftermath of the atomic bombing of Japan.

 
Devastation (1945) by Chiura Obata
Private Collection
(watercolor on paper)

Obata's prints made at the Takamizawa studios are his best known prints, but they are not the only woodblock prints that he designed.  Lesser known are series of miniature prints that Obata had made in the 1950s and 1960s during a time when he was conducting goodwill tours of Japan for Americans.  Some were clearly intended to be used as invitation covers or holiday cards; others may have been intended as gifts.  As far as I know, these miniature prints have never been catalogued, and most are only known by purely descriptive titles.

 
Close up of the bird print on the World Landscape series 
portfolio cover (1930) by Chiura Obata
Published by Takamizawa Print Works
Personal Collection
(colored woodblock print)

Obata's most famous miniature prints (or, at least, the most charming ones) belong to what are colloquially referred to as the Japanese Garden series published by tbe Uchida Art Co. Ltd.  Many of these prints are only known today in trial proof form, but the final version have printed titles on the prints (or on the backing cards upon which they may have been mounted).   Seven numbered designs are specifically known to exist but, based on the stylistically-related proof designs I have found, I suspect roughly a dozen different designs were made.

#2  The Moon light at Shiho-En (c. 1950s/1960s) by Chiura Obata
Personal Collection
(colored woodblock print)

#3 Early Summer Breeze at Shiho En (c. 1950s/1960s) by Chiura Obata
Private Collection
(colored woodblock print)

Daikan (c. 1950s/1960s) by Chiura Obata
Personal Collection
(watercolor)

#4 Daikan (c. 1950s/1960s) by Chiura Obata
Personal Collection
(colored woodblock print)

Note: The card inscription says "Standing on the terrace of Daikan So, one glance takes in the great panoramic view of more than seventy miles from San Jose and the Peninsula in the south to Marin County in the north.  From the northwest a sea breeze softly move the fresh green willow leaves.  The pet Persian cat, Muffie, lazily occupies the sofa; one the wooden table stands a Japanese dwarf cypress tree; along the low wall potted begonias give red and golden lively colors which sparkle.  To the right an aged bronze lantern adds more beautiful harmony for a restful feeling."

 
#5 Shiho En (c. 1950s/1960s) by Chiura Obata
Courtesy of Floating World Auctions
(colored woodblock print)

#6 Gate of Serenity (c. 1950s1960s) by Chiura Obata
Courtesy of Floating World Auctions
(colored woodblock print)

#7 Daikanso (c. 1950s/1960s) by Chiura Obata
Courtesy of Floating World Auctions
(colored woodblock print)

[Deer in a Japanese Garden] (c. 1950s/1960s) by Chiura Obata
Personal Collection
(colored woodblock print)

 
[Garden Scene with Footbridge and Stone Lanterns] (c. 1950s/1960s) by Chiura Obata
Personal Collection
(colored woodblock print)

[Terrace View with Cherry Blossoms] (c. 1950s/1960s) by Chiura Obata
Personal Collection
(colored woodblock print)

 
[Exterior of a Home] (c. 1950s/1960s) by Chiura Obata
Personal Collection
(colored woodblock print)

 
[Living Room] (c. 1950s/1960s) by Chiura Obata
Personal Collection
(watercolor)

Note: Unlike the watercolor for Daikan, which is print-size), this watercolor is more than twice the size of the final print.

[Living Room] (c. 1950s/1960s) by Chiura Obata
Personal Collection
(colored woodblock print)

Entering Daikan So (c. 1950s/1960s) by Chiura Obata
Courtesy of Clars Auction Gallery
(colored woodblock print)

Although not part of the Japanese Garden series, there are a number of other prints that Uchida produced based on Obata designs:

[Leaping Salmon] Season's Greetings Kim And Masao Obata (c. 1950s/1960s) 
by Chiura Obata
Personal Collection
(colored woodblock print)

[Rainbow Trout] Season's Greetings Kim & Masao Obata (c. 1950s/1960s) 
by Chiura Obata
Personal Collection
(monochrome woodblock print on textured gold-colored paper)

[Garden Scene] (circa 1950s/1960s) by Chiura Obata
Personal Collection
(colored woodblock print)

 [Dragon Ball] (c. 1950s/1960s) by Chiura Obata
Personal Collection
(woodblock print in black and grey)

Note:  This card was probably made for the Year of the Dragon, which would date the print to either 1952 or 1964. 

[Snow at Golden Pavilion] (c. 1950s/1960s) by Chiura Obata
Personal Collection
(woodblock print in black and grey)

 [Mt. Fuji] (c. 1964) by Chiura Obata
Private Collection
(woodblock print in black and grey)

 Note: This print was used for an invitation to a film showing of Japan brushwork demonstration and exhibition of original watercolors by Obata on July 28, 1964 at the Carmel Women's Club.

[Pine Tree on Cliff] (c. 1969) by Chiura Obata
Private Collection
(woodblock print printed n black and grey)

 Note: The greeting card by the Obatas is dated 1969.

Obata also produced a few miniature prints with other publishers.  The following print was used as the portfolio cover illustration for From The Sierra To The Sea, a portfolio of eleven paintings in watercolor and sumi  accompanied by printed translations from the artist's poetry, published in Berkeley, California by Archetype Press in an edition of 50 copies (of which only 25 copies were for sale).   The print was made on a hand press of Wilder and Ellen Bentley in 1937.

Yama yori umi ni (From The Mountains to the Sea) (1937) by Chiura Obata
Private Collection
(woodblock print printed in brown)

 
Yama yori umi ni (From The Mountains to the Sea) (2001) by Chiura Obata)
Personal Collection
(woodblock print printed in brown)

Note: The print found in From The Sierra To The Sea was reissued in 2001 as a commemorative broadside accompanying a poem by Gary Snyder to benefit the International Rivers Network on the occasion of the lecture The Poetry and Politics of Rivers by Julie Tsai featuring Gary Snyder at the Second Annual International River Network Conference in San Francisco (May 17, 2001).  It was designed and printed by Morning Glory Press in an edition of 100.

  
[View from Berkeley Hills]  (c. 1950s/1960s) by Chiura Obata
Private Collection
(unknown medium)

Note: I am including this print out of an abundance of caution.  It was commissioned by the City Council of the City of Berkeley.  It is probably an offset lithograph and not a woodblock print or stone lithograph.

It should also be noted that Obata made two miniature prints with the Takamizawa Studio in connection with the publication of his World Landscape print series.  One is a reduced size lithographic reproduction of his portrait of Madame Talia Savanieva.

Before Singing (Madame Talia Savanieva) (1930) by Chiura Obata
Personal Collection
(lithograph reproduction printed on silk and mounted on a shikishiban board)

Note: The back of the shikishiban board is inscribed "Tokyoa Tango Shunkumen Senden Taikai."

The other is a small woodblock print of a bird, used on the portfolio cover and individual print folders for the prints in the World Landscape series.  Minor color variations are known to exist.

  
World Landscape series print folder cover (1930)
by Chiura Obata
Personal Collection
(colored woodblock print)

World Landscape series print folder cover (1930)
by Chiura Obata
Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum
(colored woodblock print)

Finally, although they are not actually "miniature" prints, it is worth noting that Obata designed a number of large Chinese horse prints.
 
[Galloping Chinese Horse with head turned to face right] (c. 1950s/1960s)
by Chiura Obata
Personal Collection
(watercolor)
  
[Galloping Chinese Horse with head turned to face right] (c. 1950s/1960s)
by Chiura Obata
Personal Collection
(woodblock print printed in black and grey)

  
[Galloping Chinese Horse with head turned to face left] (c. 1950s/1960s) 
by Chiura Obata
Personal Collection
(watercolor)

 
[Galloping Chinese Horse with head turned to face left] (c. 1950s/1960s)
by Chiura Obata
Personal Collection
(woodblock print printed in black and grey)

The above two prints were published by Uchida.   However, Obata also made eight additional Chinese horse prints with the publisher Baba Nobuhiko, which are said to have been issued in numbered editions of 100.  To date, I have only located images of two of such horse prints:

[Standing Chinese Horse with head turned to face left] (c. 1950s?) 
by Chiura Obata
Private Collection
(woodblock print printed in black and grey)

[Galloping Chinese Horse facing left] (c. 1950s?)
by Chiura Obata
Private Collection
(woodblock print printed in black and grey)

A third print has surfaced, possibly also published by Baba Nobuhiko, although it bears a pencil inscription of "Ed. 5."

[Flying Horse] (c. 1950s?)
by Chiura Obata
Personal Collection
(woodblock print printed in black and grey)

If readers are aware of further miniature or non-canonical woodblock prints by Chiura Obata, please contact me at the address at the upper right of this page.