December 10, 2021

Japanese "Modern" Printmaking

         The Japanese ukiyo-e printmaking of the 17-19th centuries gave way in the twentieth century to two new printmaking movements in Japan.  One was shin-hanga, which aimed to continue the traditions of ukiyo-e into modern times.  The traditional methods were preserved, with art design, woodblock carving, and printing each done by different artisans, with the creative force often coming from the publisher as well as the artist who drew the designs.  The images also tended to evoke nostalgia with traditional views.  On the other hand, these artists incorporated elements of Western art into their work, as well as depicting some more modern views and details in order to update the traditional woodblock print.
        The other 20th-century movement was sosaku-hanga, which was a reaction to the traditional methods of ukiyo-e.  It emphasized the single artist drawing, carving, and printing his (or her, but usually his) creative vision.  It was inspired by Western ideas of solitary artists, as well as by Japanese folk-art traditions.  Block prints from this movement have much more in common with Western ideas of “modern art,” with experimentation, expressionism, spontaneity, and a movement away from traditional conventions of realism.  This movement really took off after World War II.
        Hokusai and Hiroshige are among the most famous ukiyo-e artists, and I’ve linked their names to previous posts featuring their work, plus more here and here.
        Hasui is probably my favorite artist working within the shin-hanga movement and you can see some of his work here, here, and here, but I’ve included today an evocative city street scene by Yoshida Hiroshi.  He was trained in Western oil painting as well as Japanese printmaking, and had a shrewd eye toward how to blend the two for maximum appeal.  There are electric lights and some influences of Western dress, as well as Western one-point perspective, in an image that nevertheless clearly follows in the traditions of ukiyo-e depictions of urban life.  (And another post with Hiroshi here.)
        Today I give you two examples from the sosaku-hanga movement, at the top and bottom of this post.  You can see that both look more “modern” than the shin-hanga piece in the middle.  The last piece, by Shima Tamami, does one of my favorite things: 
using the grain of the wood as part of the picture.  The bare tree trunks are stylized, and the tree texture on the hill in the background is very rough and almost abstract.  Meanwhile, the first piece, by Kasamatsu Shiro, experiments with depicting trees in a different way.  The yellow leaves are actually negative space, showing through beneath the areas that are carved away from the green which forms both the foreground trunks and the fade-away into the distant mountainside.  This is a very different method from traditional Japanese printmaking, in which the shape and color of the trees would have been printed with its own block, and I really like how the negative space works in this.
        In addition, I’ve done previous posts on sosaku-hanga artists Hiratsuka, Itaga, and Saito if you want to see more examples.


[Pictures: Shadow of a Mountain, color woodblock print by Kasamatsu Shiro, 1959;

Kagurazaka Street after Night Rain, color woodblock print by Yoshida Hiroshi, 1929;

A Stand of Trees, color woodblock print by Shima Tamami, 1959 (All images from The Clark Museum).]

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