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Virtual Asian-American Art Museum Project

Alexei Taylor, Author
Introduction, page 4 of 8

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Introduction, Page 5

Obata arrived in the United States more than twenty years later than Aoki, in 1903. In contrast to Aoki’s nostalgia for “Great Japan,” Obata professed a transcendental and environmentalist passion for “Great Nature.” Like Taikan before him, his work reflected his classical training in Tokyo with leading practitioners of Nihonga, including Gaho Hashimoto (1835–1908). Obata sometimes referenced Japanese classical art—for example, his 1927 sketchbook renderings of trees (Fig. 2) clearly evoke Tohaku Hasegawa’s revered Momoyama-period Pine Trees, from more than three centuries earlier (Fig. 3)—yet unlike Aoki, Obata’s paintings are more generally based in direct observation. His landscapes reference specific California locations, including views of Yosemite, the High Sierra, and Point Lobos on the Monterey Peninsula, and his synthesis of American landscape traditions with Japanese decorative aesthetics gives his work an accessible and appealing quality that has repeatedly reasserted itself since his initial renown during the 1920s.

Art historical recognition of artists like Aoki and Obata has been slow in coming. The reasons for this bear our consideration. For starters, most Asian-language calligraphy inscriptions are completely unintelligible. Further, Asian names are less familiar and as such are more forgettable. Even Americans with interest and training in the visual arts can usually name only a few Asian artists—generally contemporary figures like Takashi Murakami (b. 1962) and Ai Wei- wei (b. 1957), made famous by their pop cultural references and high-profile politics. American responses also equate excellence in visual art with modernist innovation and
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