A Century of Japanese Prints

Tipsy, from the series Modern Styles of Women by Kobayakawa Kiyoshi, 1930, colour woodblock print with mica, Saint Louis Art Museum, The Langenberg Endowment Fund

This show follows The Saint Louis Art Museum’s highly successful print exhibition, Conflicts of Interest: Art and War in Modern Japan that was reviewed in Asian Art Newspaper October 2016. Now, The Saint Louis Art Museum it is continuing its exploration of 20th-century Japanese prints with this subject-specific exhibition of over 70 prints as seen by two divergent schools of artistic expression.These two print exhibitions were made possible by the museum’s mission, growing since the early 1980s, to publicise the world of Japanese printmaking.

In the mid-19th century, Japanese prints had begun their slow decline into more and more unsubtle subject matter such as horror vacui battle scenes, stiffly posed kabuki scenes and increasing use of triptych prints as the tableau of choice to display them. For many years the artists who designed these prints were referred to in the West as the Decadent School. In the 1870s, with the introduction of the harshly-coloured German aniline dyes, the sinking quality of designs, together with the German dyes, began the death rattle of ‘traditional’ ukiyo-e prints.

The coup de grace for ukiyo-e came in the early years of the 20th century with the rise of two dichotomous print movements, shin-hanga  (new prints) and sosaku-hanga (creative prints), the components of this exhibition. Shin-hanga thrived during the Taisho and Showa periods (1867-1912) and (1912-1989) and was a movement that strove to revitalise classical ukiyo-e of the 18th and early 19th centuries. Shin-hanga utilised the classical collaborative (hanmoto) system, an almost an assembly line division of labour, where the creation of a print began with the artist’s drawn design which was then passed to the block carver, then to the printer and finally to the publisher/distributor for sale to the public.

The shin-hanga movement flourished from around 1915 to 1942 and then briefly from 1946 through the 1950s. Their inspiration came largely from European Impressionism and the artists incorporated foreign designs of light and shadow and the ‘mood’ of the subject, especially in landscapes. As in traditional ukiyo-e, with which shin-hanga has been confused, these artists, however, did rely on the same subjects, such as landscapes (fukeiga), famous places (meisho), beautiful women (bijinga), kabuki actors (yakusha-e), and birds-and-flowers (kacho-e).

In the Meiji period and early 20th century Japan, shin-hanga, like ukiyo-e, had only a small domestic demand and were looked down upon by the traditional art as mass-produced, commercial products from Edo/Tokyo,
a merchant city, unlike Kyoto, an aristocratic city.

The real market for shin-hanga, however, lay in the West where both ukiyo-e and shin-hanga were considered fine art. The shin-hanga artists, aware that their market lay abroad because of the nostalgic and romanticised views of Japan prized in the West, catered their creations accordingly and successfully because they were wildly popular in the 1920s and 1930s.

There are approximately 20 artists classified as shin-hanga and a number of them are in this exhibition, specifically Kobayakawa Kiyoshi and Ito Shinsui and with their beautiful women, Kawase Hasui with his soft, appealing landscapes, Hashiguchi Goyo with his beautiful women at their toilette, Natori Shunsen with his actor prints, Yamamura Toyonari with his striking subject matter, Hiroshi Yoshida with his almost pastel and tonal landscapes, many of Western scenes, and two American artists working in Japan, Elizabeth Keith and Charles W Bartlett.

One of the most iconic of shin-hanga prints is Tipsy, by Kobayakawa Kiyoshi, depicting a slightly inebriated Japanese version of an ‘It girl’ at a bar with a cocktail in front of her. I suppose we have all been there at one time or another and find an immediate empathy with this scene. Hiroshi Yoshida is well represented by a 1926 night-scene of a boat slipping silently across the open waters of the Seto Inland Sea, the title of the series from which it comes. Hashguchi Goyo’s 1920 print, Woman Combing Her Hair, is a large image of a serenely private scene, but Yamamura Toyonari takes centre stage with his dramatically imagined portrait of Jean Valjean, a protagonist from Victor Hugo’s 1862 Les Miserables. He is depicted as a deeply troubled man, stigmatised for life with a yellow passport, marking him forever as a former prisoner.

Sosaku-hanga was a movement that was contemporary with shin-hanga but was worlds apart. Not only had they rejected the shin-hanga collaborative method of print production and replaced it with the artist himself as the only source of creating a print, they also rejected the traditional subjects and how they were depicted.

Some 28 artists comprise this group and several of them are exhibited here, specifically Onchi Koshiro, Munakata Shiko and Fujimori Shizuo. What is immediately evident in many sosaku-hanga prints is the strong influence of Western wood-cuts and linoleum-cuts: heavy use of fields of black (or sometimes colour) and lines of raw irregularity slashing across the surface to create the desired image. One finds such techniques in many American artists in the 1920s 1930s and they quickly found a new home in Japan. Other Western influences can be seen that somehow conjure Gustav Klimt, such as Fujimori Shizuo’s My Sister is Sick, an overhead view of recumbent female figure with a halo lying on what resembles a meandering path against a streaked background. Onchi’s Impression of a Violinist (Portrait of Suwa Nejiko), from 1947. It is a powerful image that may have a dark history. The violin was given to her by the Reich’s Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, while she was a resident in Germany (repatriated to Japan after the War) and it may have been a Stradivarius confiscated from a Jewish owner. Onchi’s Tokyo Station from his 1945 series, Scenes from Lost Tokyo. The Meiji-period brick station with its modern canopy, heavy shadows and bold planes of colour give a certain Art Moderne feel to the whole composition.

Bold black/white fields were a speciality of both Munakata Shiko and Fujimori Shizuo with the latter’s 1923 Bell Hill, serving as a rare example of his monochrome prints in a bold display of lines and planes. Munakata Shiko is almost a ‘poster boy’ of sosaku-hanga with his extremely bold vertical portrait of the divinity
Jizo Bosatsu, an image that has graced the cover of a book and is part of any art history book on 20th-century Japanese art.

This is in no way a monocular exhibition as one’s eye and interest easily fluctuate between two different realms of art that existed in the same country
at the same time.

Martin Barnes Lorber



Until 28 January, A Century of Japanese Prints at the  St. Louis Art Museum, slam.org