Japanese woodblock printing in its early days required three people: an artist to draw the design, a woodcarver to cut the blocks, and a printer to color the blocks and make the finished prints. Over the years techniques and styles evolved and by the beginning of the twentieth century artists had begun to view the genre as stale and lacking vitality. A group of print artists debated the problem and decided the artist must do the work of designing, carving and printing, carrying the design through singly from concept to completion. A new term was devised to describe this kind of art—sôsaku hanga or creative print.
The Modern Japanese Print: An Appreciation is a 1968 reprint of an earlier limited edition book published in 1962. James Michener wrote the book’s accompanying text which explains how ten prints were selected by a panel of judges from the work of 275 artists. Each of the ten artists selected received payment for their work and were required to submit 510 copies of the chosen piece, keeping ten copies for their own files and finally destroying the original woodblocks. A copy of the original 475 folio limited editions of The Modern Japanese Print: An Appreciation released in 1962 would today be a valuable addition to any collector’s library.
An example from the 1968 first popular edition of the book was featured in Scriblets last July. That post featured the work of Maki Haku in a print titled Ushi (Ox). The prints of three other artists included in the book appear below.
Maekawa Sempan (1888-1960)
Son of a shopkeeper in Kyoto, Maekawa Sempan went to Tokyo as a young man to study art. His first job was drawing cartoons and illustrations for a satirical magazine named Pakku (Puck). Maekawa exhibited his first print in the sôsaku hanga style at the age of 31. He said of his own problems, “It took ten years to learn technique. Later, when I got acquainted with other artisans I found out they could have taught me the same things in a few hours.”
At the close of World War II things got better for sôsaku hanga artists and Maekawa was able to make a living on his prints. A favorite subject was scenes from Japanese hot springs and he published several series titled Hot Spring Notes. His popularity increased with colorful designs of ordinary people at festivals, as well as scenes depicting local customs and observations from life in the countryside. With the exception of a few linocuts, Maekawa worked exclusively with woodcuts, never displaying interest in Western techniques. His style, especially after the war was decorative, cheerful and colorful.
Rampu (Lamp) by Maekawa Sempan, 1960-61
The artist’s comment: “Autumn is my favorite season, particularly early autumn when the first cool days come around. In this print I fetched from my childhood memories of autumn days one of the lamps that we used to use and then perched an autumn insect on it.”
Mori Yoshitoshi (1896-1992)
For most of his life Mori Yoshitoshi worked as a textile designer and only began creating art prints at the age of 57. Born in Tokyo and trained at the Kawabata School of Fine Arts, after graduation he became a textile designer and dyer of kimono fabrics. Mori preferred earth colors as well as idealistic subjects taken from folk art, kabuki theater or characters in Japanese mythology, designs often humorous and expressing dynamic movement.
The artist enjoyed incredible energy in his later years. From the late 50s until the end of his life he exhibited regularly in Japan as well as abroad. Prints by Mori hang in major museums worldwide, including the Tokyo Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Barcelona Museum of Arts and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. His works are today rather rare and high priced.
Kagura no doke (Kagura Buffoonery) by Mori Yoshitoshi, 1960
The artist’s comment: “This work was inspired by the comic kagura dances given at Shinto shrine festivals throughout Japan. The dancers come onto the stage, generally a roofed outdoor platform in the shrine precincts, and to the accompaniment of the traditional drum and flute give hilarious pantomimes, which are also known as fools’ dances. The idea for this print came from my fond childhood memories of such fools’ dances.”
Kinoshita Tomio (1923- )
Inspired by the work of Un’ichi Hiratsuka and self-taught, Kinoshita began making prints at the age of 32. He startled the Tokyo art world in 1957 with a series of large prints done in a striking new style. The prints were of stylized human heads in only black and one other color. Both critics and buyers were impressed and a new artist was launched. Kinoshita cut many of his blocks entirely with a single cutting tool, either a flat chisel or a U-shaped gouge. He used the gouge to cut jagged parallel lines to define shapes such as the faces and bodies of partly abstracted human figures and to resemble the grain of wood.
The chief characteristic in the print shown here is the jagged lines which the artist used to convey the sense of woodgrain, an artistic invention that turns out to be better than realism. It was carved on two Judas tree boards and printed on natural color torinoko paper, a permanent type made from natural fiber; printed with carmine and vermilion watercolors to achieve the orange, and sumi ink for the black. Kinoshita made three impressions of the orange, and two for the black.
Kao 3 (Faces No. 3) by Kinoshita Tomio, 1959-61
The artist’s comment: “A full title for this print would be ‘Faces of the Weak Courageously Attempting to Move Forward in a World of Darkness.’ This is one in a series of prints I have been working on for four or five years, all having the common motif of faces or masks. In combinations of faces such as the present I am trying to express the sufferings of society, of man, of mankind, of all living beings. I am not too certain of my results: perhaps in the end I have produced mere ‘prints.’”