The Sosaku hanga
(literally creative prints) art movement
in early 20th century Japan, during the Taishō
periods advocated the principles of “self-drawn” [jiga
], self-carved” [jikoku
] and “self-printed” [jizuri
], according to which the artist, with the desire of expressing the self, is the sole creator of art. As opposed to the shin hanga
movement that maintained the traditional ukiyo-e
collaborative system [hanmoto
system] where the artist, carver, printer, and publisher engaged in division of labor, creative print artists distinguished themselves as artists creating art for art’s sake.
The birth of the sosaku hanga movement [sosaku hanga undo] was signaled by Yamamoto Kanae’s (1882-1946) small print called “Fisherman” in 1904. Departing from the ukiyo-e collaborative system, Yamamoto Kanae (1882-1946) made the print solely on his own, all the way from drawing, carving and printing. Such principles of “self-drawn” [jiga], self-carved” [jikoku] and “self-printed” [jizuri] became the foundation of the creative print movement, which struggled for existence in prewar Japan along with other art movements, and gained its momentum and flourished in postwar Japan as the genuine heir of the ukiyo-e tradition.
The 1951 São Paulo Art Biennial witnessed the success of the creative print movement. Both of the Japanese winners, Komai and Saito Kiyoshi (1907-1997) were printmakers, who outperformed Japanese paintings [nihonga], Western paintings [yoga], sculptures and avant-garde. Other sosaku hanga artists such as Onchi Koshiro (1891-1955), Hiratsuka Unichi (1895-1997), Watanabe Sadao (1913-1996) and Maki Haku (1924-2000) are also well-known in the West.
Origins and Early Years
The creative print movement was one of the many manifestations of the rise of the individual
after decades of modernization
. In both artistic and literary circles, there emerged at the turn of the century expressions of the “self”. In 1910, Kotaro Takamura
’s (1883-1956) “A Green Sun” encourages artists’ individual expression: “I desire absolute freedom of art. Consequently I recognize the limitless authority of individuality of the artist… Even if two or three artists should paint a “green sun”, I would never criticize them for I myself may see a green sun”. In 1912, in “Bunten and the Creative Arts” [Bunten to Geijutsu
], Natsume Sōseki
(1867-1916) states that “art begins with the expression of the self and ends with the expression of the self”. These two essays marked the beginning of the intellectual discussion of the “self”, which immediately found echo in the art scene. 1910 witnessed the first publication of a monthly magazine called White Birch [Shirakaba
], the most important magazine shaping the thought of the Taisho
period. Aspiring young artists organized its first exhibition in the same year. Shirakaba
also sponsored exhibitions of western art.
In its early formative years, sosaku hanga movement, like many other art movements such as the shin hanga movement, futurism and proletarian art movement, struggled to survive, experiment and sought a voice in an art scene dominated by mainstream arts that were well-received by the Bunten. Hanga in general (including shin hanga) did not achieve the status of Western oil paintings [yoga] in Japan. Hanga was considered as a craft that was inferior to paintings and sculptures. Ukiyo-e woodblock prints had always been considered as mere reproductions for mass commercial consumption, as opposed to the European view of ukiyo-e as art during the climax of Japonisme. It was impossible for sosaku hanga artists to make a living by just doing creative prints. Many of the later renowned sosaku hanga artists such as Onchi Koshiro (1891-1955) (also known as the father of the creative print movement) were book illustrators and wood carvers. It was not until 1927 that hanga was accepted by Teitan (former Bunten). In 1935, extracurricular classes on hanga were finally permitted.
The wartime years from 1939 to 1945 was a metamorphosis for the creative print movement. The First Thursday Society
, which was crucial to the postwar revival of Japanese prints, was formed in 1939 through the groups of people who gathered in the house of Onchi Koshiro
(1891-1955) in Tokyo. The group met once a month to discuss subjects of woodblock prints. First initial members included Yamaguchi Gen
(1896-1976) and Sekino Junichiro
(1914-1988). American connoisseurs Ernst Hacker, William Hartnett and Oliver Statler also attended. They revived Western interest in Japanese prints in the form of creative print movement. The Fist Thursday Collection [Ichimoku-shu
], a collection of prints by members to circulate to each other, was produced in 1944. Such a group and publication provided comradeship and a venue for artistic exchange and nourishment during the difficult war years when resource was scarce and censorship
Postwar Creative Print Movement
The rebirth of Japanese print coincided with the rebirth of Japan after World War II
. The 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty
ended the American Occupation in Japan. During the occupation, American soldiers and their wives bought and collected Japanese prints as souvenirs. It can be said that Japanese prints became one of the components of postwar economic reconstruction. With the aim of promoting “democratic art”, American patronage shifted from shin hanga
to sosaku hanga. By 1950, abstraction
became the mode of the creative print movement in Japan. Japanese prints were perceived as genuine blending of East and West. Artists such as Onchi Koshiro
(1891-1955), who had shown passion for abstract
expression since his early years, turned completely to abstract
art after the war. (abstract
art was banned by the military government during wartime) The 1951 Sao Paulo Art Biennial
was Japan’s first postwar submission to an international exhibition. Both of the Japanese winners, Komai and Saito Kiyoshi
(1907-1997), were printmakers. They outperformed Japanese oil paintings nihonga
, Western oil paintings
art. Notable artists such as Munakata Shiko
(1903-1975) and Naoko Matsubara
(1937- ) worked in the folk art
), and held one-man show in the United States
Contemporary Japanese Prints
Contemporary Japanese prints have a rich diversity in subject matter and style. Noda Tetsuya
(1940- ) employs photography
and produces everyday qualities in his prints in the form of photographic diaries. Artists such as Maki Haku
(1924-2000) and Shinoda Toko
(1913- ) synthesize calligraphy
expression and produce strikingly beautiful and serene images. Watanabe Sadao
(1913-1996) worked in the mingei
(folk art) tradition, synthesizing Buddhist
figure portrayal and Western Christianity
in his unique biblical
From 1960s onwards, the line between fine art and commercial media was blurred. Pop and conceptual artists work with professional technicians, and possibilities for innovation are endless.
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- Kawakita, Michiaki. Contemporary Japanese Prints. Tokyo and Palo Alto: Kodansha, 1967.
- Keyes, Roger. Break with the Past: The Japanese Creative Print Movement, 1910-1960. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 1988.
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- Volk, Alicia. Made in Japan: The Postwar Creative Print Movement. Milwaukee Art Museum and University of Washington Press, 2005. ISBN 029598502X