Saturday, November 22, 2014

Rain & Snow: Kawase Hasui

Sometime in the early 1930s, a young man named Robert Muller noticed a woodblock print in a New York shop window and went inside for closer look. He ended up buying the print, using his meager monthly student allowance of $5. The print was Kawase Hasui’s 1931 work, Kiyosu Bridge. Later in his life, Muller opened a print and framing shop in New Haven, Connecticut and became an astute collector who over the years stimulated renewal and development in the art of Japanese woodblock printing.

One of the blogs I always look forward to reading celebrates the old shitamachi district of Tokyo and is written by a young South African woman living and working there. My great enjoyment in her writing (and photos) comes from the fact that I lived in Tokyo myself for 28 years, yet never fail to learn something new in blogposts from Rurousha. A week ago her post opened with a photo of Kawase Hasui’s woodblock print, Kiyosu Bridge. The artist’s name was not new to me and in line with other Japanese art posts I’ve done, with encouragement from Rurousha it seemed a good time to devote some space to this woodblock print artist of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Kawase Hasui (1883-1957) was a leading figure in the shin-hanga, or ‘new prints’ movement of Japanese woodblock printmaking. As a young man he studied with Kaburagi Kiyotaka, the man who founded the shin-hanga concept. Hasui traveled frequently, filling sketchbooks with drawings of scenic places around Japan. Many of his print designs are based on his watercolors, many of them done a year or two before the appearance of a first print, but in some cases years, even decades passed between the original work and the print version.

A Tea Plantation, 1941; watercolor in preparation for a woodblock print

Most of Hasui’s prints appear to be based on beautiful, atmospheric watercolors, probably done on location. His sketchbooks include what look like preparatory sketches for either a watercolor or print but it is hard to say much definitively about his creative process as it remains somewhat shrouded in mystery, and for now at least, lacking in very many substantiated facts. Through his teacher Hasui met Shôzaburô Watanabe, a driving force behind shin-hanga printmaking. Watanabe ultimately published most of Hasui’s work.

Daimotsu, Amagasaki in the Rain, 1940

In the print above we see not an old rural Japan but the blossoming industrial Japan of Hasui’s day. Despite that, it is an unmistakably Japanese setting.

Hasui is highly regarded for his exquisite color, perspective and ambiance in a wide range of woodblock prints. Over his lifetime he created over 600 different prints and is recognized as one of most prolific shin-hanga artists of the period. In 1953, the Japanese government decided to commemorate traditional printmaking and commissioned Hasui to make a special woodblock print. The result was Snow at Zojoji Temple, a work later designated an Intangible Cultural Treasure. The year before his death in 1957, Hasui was named a Living National Treasure in Japan.

Snow at Zojoji Temple, 1953

Pond at Benten Shrine in Shiba, 1929

The Road to Nikko, 1930

Cloudy Day, Mizuki Ibaragi, 1946

Mandarin Ducks, 1950

Night Rain at Kawarako, Ibaragi, 1947

Dahlias, 1940

The print of Dahlias, along with Mandarin Ducks above are examples of Hasui’s few non-landscape compositions.

For more about the art of woodblock prints see an earlier post here.

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America