Modern Japanese Prints: Waves of Renewal

Winter: Before the mirror (1918) by Kitano Tsunetomi (1880-1947), from the series Four Seasons of the Pleasure Quarters, 39.5 x 26.1 cm

This exhibition shows Modern Japanese prints from the Nihon no hanga collection that were collected over the last 25 years or so from the shin hanga and sosaku hanga traditions with a particular focus on the pre-war era. The scope of the collection, which spans 1900-1960, provides a natural time frame for the exhibition.

By the end of the 19th century, the Japanese traditional print, ukiyo-e, had to face an unprecedented crisis. The cultural context of production was in the process of changing – prints were no longer being published, especially relating to Yoshiwara in old Edo (present-day Tokyo) a traditional β€˜pleasure area’, and the link between printmaking and daily theatre performances was also disappearing.

The Trend for Modern Japanese Prints

There was no longer any interest in portraying the characters of kabuki, or the samurai. The trend was for modern Japanese prints that were created just for their own beauty. In parallel, the West had become fascinated with Japan and the art market had evolved to match these new demands, as publishers wanted to sell their prints in America and Europe, so catalogues in English were printed and exhibitions were organised in the US. The success was immediate at the beginning of the 20th century: the prints of past masters such as Hokusai, Utamaro, and Hiroshige, were surpassed by those of contemporary artists, with many works being auctioned, mainly in New York. Japanese artists had also discovered the West for themselves and consequently created a very different approach to the role of the artist and the process of creating art.

This change in direction allowed two new movements to be born in Japan, at the beginning of the 20th century, providing a different response to this new situation. The printer Watanabe Shozaburo (1885-1962) started the revival of engraving and created a new style, while retaining the traditional division of labour: the collaboration between four people, the artist, the engraver, the printer and the publisher. This movement inspired by Watanabe is shin hanga, or β€˜new print’. Shin hanga took the traditional categories of landscapes, portraits of women and actors, flowers and birds, and reimagined them in innovative styles.

The New Artists of the Modern Era

This movement of Modern Japanese prints is represented in the exhibition by Kawase Hasui (1883-1957), Kasamatsu Shiro (1898-1991), and Yoshida Hiroshi (1876-1950). These prints are full of atmosphere – landscapes bathed in sunlight, sudden rain showers, or heavy with snow.Β  Hashiguchi Goyo (1880-1921), Ito Shinsui (1898-1972) and Torii Kotondo (1900-1976), specialised in portraits of women of great beauty, slightly dreamy, while others, especially Kobayakawa Kiyoshi (1889-1948), focused on the creation of prints showing moga (modern girls), independent women who were keen to follow Western fashion.

Sosaku Hanga Prints

The second movement of Modern Japanese prints was inspired by Western practices and sought to enhance the status of engraving, the members of the sosaku hanga wanted to make the artist aware of all the stages in the realisation of his works, without the intervention of specialised craftsmen, such as the engraver, or printer. Thus the mark of the chisel on the block of wood became the expression of the artist’s personality, as was the brushstroke of the calligrapher, or brushstrokes on paper. In comparison with shin hanga prints, the result is often more raw, imbued with a sense of spontaneity, impromptu, and unfinished. Unlike shin hanga prints, which attracted foreign buyers, sosaku hanga were mainly sold to a Japanese audience, through subscriptions, or art exhibitions. Prints from this tradition in the exhibition are by artists such as Yamamoto Kanae (1882-1946), who spent several years in France studying Western painting and making quite exceptional prints of the landscapes and inhabitants of Brittany.

The work of Onchi Koshiro (1891-1955), figurehead of the movement, are also on display. He was resolutely attached to the idea that an artist had to do the engravings themselves,Β Β  including the plates. Onchi’s poignant portraits of women and urban landscapes positions him as a pioneering abstract artist in Japan.Β  Perhaps his most iconic series is Beauties of the Four Seasons (1927), simple, direct, and modern, they include the name for each season in French.

Included in the show are prints by artists who have painted the reemergence of modern Tokyo after the ravages caused by the great earthquake in Kanto, in 1923.

Waves of Renewal, Modern Japanese prints 1900-1960 at the Custodia Foundation, Paris, until 6 January, 2019, A catalogue accompanies the exhibition, ISBN 978 90 78655 29 9, 49 euros.