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 or subject. This quality of observation and perceptiveness was transmitted through the artist's intuitive connection with the spirit of the subject. The energy of Obata's brushwork is an expression of living natural beauty.
Obata depicted a branch of nanten (南天 Nandina domestica) arranged in a pot. The bright red berries ripen in late autumn and can persist through winter. Although nicknamed the "heavenly bamboo" or "sacred bamboo" due to its lacy leaves, it is actually an evergreen plant whose white flowers appear in early summer. Nanten are very popular in Japanese gardens, and throughout the year in the home when, as in Obata's painting, cut branches are used for floral arrangements. New leaves are bronze, rose, or red, turning green when mature, and finally red, pink, orange, and bronze in autumn and winter.
The crabs, including one still in its "hole," are 3-D decorative elements, common to ceramics such as Banko-yaki (萬古焼) rustic stoneware named after its late 18th-century inventor.
Obata's painting is a fine example of decorative naturalism expressed through Obata's "living moment" idiom. In this painting the artist used a combination of saturated and dilute colors to render the leaves in a traditional manner reminiscent of suibokuga (monochrome ink compositions: 水墨画), although the shades of gray are heightened here and there with blue pigment. The balance and contrast between painted forms and empty space is especially effective, creating a feeling of size and weight for the pot and lively ripeness in the bright red berries. The original vase is still in the Obata family (see photo). It appears that Obata took some artistic liberty with the positioning of the two crabs, bringing them closer together so that they would both be visible in the painting. If he had not done so, we can see from the photo that merely turning the vase clockwise to match the location of the lower crab in the painting would have moved the upper crab out of view.
- 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.
- ShiPu Wang: Chiura Obata: An American Modern. Art, Design & Architecture Museum, University of California, Santa Barbara, 2018.