Modern and contemporary artists prove that when it comes to printmaking, there is no place in the world quite like Japan.
The classic era of the Japanese woodblock print—created by artists such as Hokusai, Hiroshige, Utamaro, and Kuniyoshi—came to an end just before the 20th century began. Western art and technology, as well as the social and economic conditions of the Meiji period, created a new world of art and publishing in Japan, which did not have room in it for the old-style prints, or ukiyo-e. However, printmaking as a medium never died out; it reinvented itself, melding tradition with modernity, remaining fully Japanese while also belonging fully to the international contemporary art world. The craft of printmaking, in particular, continues to thrive in Japan. “Nobody prints the way the Japanese do, with such a sense of craft and tradition,” says Allison Tolman, a dealer of Japanese prints based in New York and Tokyo. “So many foreigners go there to print and learn printmaking.” In fact, one of the noteworthy features of the contemporary Japanese print scene is the presence of Western artists who use Japanese methods and whose work openly shows influence from Japanese culture.
Around a decade after the death of the last great master of ukiyo-e, Yoshitoshi, in 1892, two new movements in Japanese printmaking were launched, shin hanga (“new prints”) and sosaku hanga (“creative prints”). The latter was actually the first to emerge, although it took several more decades for it to really establish itself in the art world. In traditional Japanese printmaking, the artist created the design, while the blocks were carved by a different artisan and the inking and printing was done by yet another person. The whole process was a publishing enterprise rather than an act of individual self-expression. By contrast, sosaku hanga was DIY printmaking—“self-designed, self-carved, self-printed.” The first Japanese print of this kind is thought to be Kanae Yamamoto’s Fisherman (1904), which owes a great deal to Western woodcut technique and, in contrast to the wildly chromatic ukiyo-e, uses a muted two-color scheme, like a European “chiaroscuro” print. Sosaku hanga didn’t catch on with the buying public at that time, and it wasn’t until after World War II that it came into its own as the dominant school of printmaking. In 1951, when two sosaku hanga artists, Yamamoto and Kiyoshi Saito, won prizes at the São Paulo Biennale, international as well as Japanese recognition came to the school, and from then on, one-artist work has been the norm in Japanese printmaking.
From around 1915 through the war years, however, shin hanga was the standard, favored by Japanese as well as American print collectors. Shin hanga (“new prints”) tended to return to many of the themes of earlier Japanese printmaking—landscapes, cityscapes, beautiful women—but with a more explicitly “luxury” approach to the finish of the inked surfaces and with a certain indebtedness to European art styles such as Impressionism. Unlike sosaku hanga, shin hanga were executed the old way, by team effort. Kawase Hasui’s Zojoji Shiba (1925), a memorable image of a woman walking into a snowstorm, is emblematic of shin hanga, with its slightly updated, technically polished take on an old subject. It is worth noting that, in a prefiguration of what is happening today, some of the earliest shin hanga were by Western artists, who were commissioned by the pioneering print publisher Watanabe Shozaburo. Today’s Western-born artists on the Japanese printmaking scene include Daniel Kelly, Sarah Brayer, and Joshua Rome.
To the extent that Japanese printmakers drew inspiration from foreign sources, sosaku hanga, especially in the 1950s, looked to European avant-garde modernism, including abstractionism, in contrast to the more conservative Western models for shin hanga. But both schools, as well as many (but not all) contemporary artists, remained very connected to Japanese traditional religion, history, and aesthetics, which in the case of certain sosaku hanga artists manifested itself in a fondness for folk-culture imagery. Shiko Munakata (1903–75), for example, often depicted Buddhist subjects in a folk or naïve style, as can been seen in his print Our Benefactor in the Mountains. He also made works such as Banri Hen-un Nashi (Cloudless), that refer to traditional Zen calligraphy. Yoshitoshi Mori (1898–1992) made many colorful prints of grotesque, humorous figures from Japanese legends, such as Devil’s Drum. Kiyoshi Saito (1907–97) took a more austere approach, frequently making works that refer to modernist architecture and sculpture. Junichiro Sekino (1914–88), also found architecture alluring, but in his case the subjects were often old Japanese temples framed by flowers and ponds.
Works by these four printmakers were recently on view in an exhibition at Ronin Gallery in New York titled “Modern Masters: Collecting Memories of Post-War Japan.” David Libertson, the owner of Ronin, says, “All of these artists are interpreting their material in different ways, but all speak to the passage of time and state of flux in Japanese society. All incorporate Western elements, but all are proud to reference their heritage in a truly modern and contemporary way. Pride shines through in every one of these works.”
As for today’s printmaking world in Japan, the keyword is diversity, according to Tolman, a second-generation dealer whose parents came to Tokyo with the U.S. Foreign Service, became obsessed with print collecting, and stayed. “Today’s printmakers are mining the internet for inspiration; they’re in touch with so many more things than ever before.” Artists are responding to current events; Tolman mentions that the 2011 earthquake and tsunami generated many dark and disturbing prints, and cites Mayumi Oda as an artist who combines inspiration from Buddhism with an interest in environmentalism.
Traditional themes and concepts are being presented in more and more innovative ways. For example, Shuji Wako’s Open Secret looks at first glance like a bunch of colorful textiles thrown over a black backdrop. On closer inspection, one suddenly realizes that the negative space is the outline of Mount Fuji, one of the most iconic Japanese print subjects, hiding in plain sight. In Japanese Classic Calendar, Katsunori Hamanishi uses classic imagery—fans, a folding screen—to express the four seasons and their traditional lore in a clever, elegant fashion. Unlike a traditional print, though, this one is almost monochrome, in shades of gray with some bluish-green, and it is not a woodblock or even a lithograph but a mezzotint—a hugely labor-intensive older European technique that is particularly good at rendering dark shadows and that is now being rediscovered by younger printmakers in the West and in Japan.
Another younger artist who favors monochrome is Keisuke Yamamoto. Her large-scale lithographs of chairs standing in empty rooms, resemble black and white photographs. “They are so calm, they make you feel centered,” says Miranda Metcalf, director of Davidson Galleries in Seattle, which represents the artist. She adds that for many contemporary Japanese printmakers, there is a greater “focus on composition, line, and technique” than on color. Another artist who uses black and white to striking effect is Katsutoshi Yuasa, who transforms photographs into woodblock prints. His Tokyo Story is a take on a scene from the great film of the same title by Yasujiro Ozu. Yuasa’s work is available from Ronin Gallery. Another experimenter with media is Yuko Kimura, who exploits the intriguing patterns in the paper of old books of prints that have been eaten by worms. Michael Verne, a specialist dealer in Cleveland who shows her work, says, “Most ukiyo-e dealers are giving away books with wormholes in them. Kimura cuts up these books and collages them back together again. She’s one of the younger artists to watch.”
Contemporary Japanese prints are attractive not only for their creativity and beauty but also for their affordability. “They tend to have a low price point compared to other work with that level of skill,” says Metcalf, who ascribes it to the present strength of the dollar against the yen and to a weak print-collecting scene in Japan, where wall space tends to be scarce. “Customers often say, ‘I can’t believe these are so accessible.’ They’re great for young collectors. It’s a really wonderful side of the printmaking world.”
By John Dorfman