A short overview
Japanese woodblock prints first came to Europe in the early 19th century, brought back by Franz von Siebold. These are now in the ethnographic Museum in Leiden, The Netherlands, and most are still in the completely unfaded condition they were in when von Siebold bought them around 1830. More examples came to the West when US Navy Commodore Perry “opened” Japan in 1853, and afterwards during the Meiji Restauration, which started in 1868.
Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints had a profound impact on Western artists. Vincent van Gogh is often mentioned in this connection, but nearly every artist in the latter half of the 19th century was under the influence of “Japonisme”. Early collectors, like the Goncourt brothers, were convinced that the golden age of Japanese prints was long past, and had really stopped at the death of Hokusai in 1849. Toyokuni III (= Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1864)) and Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861) were considered “decadents”, though a grudging exception was made for the work of Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858), his early landscapes especially.
The last quarter of the 19th century brought profound changes in Japan. From an essentially medieval country Japan was transformed into a modern nation, which first made its changed position felt by defeating China in a short and bloody war in 1894-5, and which then repeated this feat by defeating Russia in 1905. In the field of woodblock prints the changes were dramatic as well. Of course this is change on a different scale, and with less visible results, but equally fundamental.
The Sino-Japanese war of 1894-5 was in fact the stage for the last flowering of traditional ukiyo-e. The war was carefully covered by woodblock print artists, who showed the general public the heroic exploits of the Japanese army and the sorry performances of the Chinese. Large numbers of war triptychs (senso-e) were published, which were eagerly bought by a proud homefront. Then, around 1900, new reproduction techniques gained the upper hand: lithographs and steel engravings were cheaper and also yielded good results. Moreover, they were “modern” and that alone held a strong attraction for the Japanese. Publishers of woodblock prints found themselves in a tight spot: they could only compete if they published prints that were better than those produced by modern means. It can be safely stated that the quality of woodblock prints published between 1900 and ca. 1910 was the highest ever. I am not talking about their artistic value (though many fine prints were made) but about the technical brilliance shown. Examples are prints by Yamamoto Shoun (1870-1965), e.g his series Ima Sugata, showing bust portraits of contemporary beauties, and most of the prints published by Matsuki Heikichi. That the publishers of traditional woodblock prints were still fighting a losing battle is shown by the fact that far fewer colour woodblock printed senso-e were published during the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-5.
The first decade of the 20th century was a very exciting time for all Japanese artists: there were many movements, allegiances shifted, new groups were formed, abandoned and re-formed with different members. It was a period of manifestos, of artists having to make one fundamental choice after another. Many artists had been in Europe, for them going to Europe was as much an obligation as the Grand Tour (to Italy) was a must for young English upper class men in the 18th and 19th century. Major artists went along with unknown ones. Takeuchi Seihô (1864-1942), already a famous painter, went for a tour to Europe in 1900, returning in 1901. Artists in Japan were well-informed about artistic developments in Europe. A major source of influence was the German magazine Jugend, founded in 1896, and scrutinized by Japanese artists. The magazine Hôsun, begun in 1907 by Ishii Hakutei (1882-1958) was closely modelled on Jugend. Some years before, in 1904, Ishii Hakutei had published a print by Yamamoto Kanae (1882-1946) in his magazine Myojo. This print, Gyofu – Picture of a fisherman, is generally considered the first real Sôsaku Hanga print.
At this stage, the word “Sôsaku Hanga” should be explained. It is mostly translated as “Creative print”, as opposed to commercial print. Commercial prints were still being made by publishers like Matsuki Heikichi, but in 1915 a new and very important player entered the field, Watanabe Shôzaburô (1885-1962). He had started as a publisher of reproductions of classic ukiyo-e prints. Therefore he had at his disposal a number of highly qualified engravers and printers. He only lacked artists, and when he had seen an exhibition of works by a relatively unknown Austrian artist, Fritz Capelari, in 1915, he went on to publish 15 of his prints in the woodblock medium. Other artists soon followed suit, first Charles Bartlett (1860-1940), and then Hashiguchi Goyô (1880-1921), who left after contributing no more than one design. In 1916 Itô Shinsui (1898-1972) joined Watanabe Shôzaburô, and he stayed with him until 1960. The other major artist mainly working for Watanabe was Kawase Hasui (1883-1957). Commercially produced prints like these are generally referred to as “Shin Hanga”, New Prints. In fact Shin Hanga went on where ukiyo-e had ended.
Watanabe Shôzaburô was a businessman (though he also designed a few landscape prints), and that is exactly what Sôsaku Hanga artists were not. They were not concerned with editions, they were mainly experimenting with woodblocks as a medium of expressing themselves. Many prints were only made in a few copies, and then the artist went on to try something new. One thing that should not be forgotten is that most of the early Sôsaku Hanga artists had been trained as painters, and that some only made a limited number of woodblock prints before returning to painting. Apart from Ishii Hakutei also Minami Kunzô (1883-1950) is often mentioned in this connection. He made a limited number of highly evocative landscape prints, closely resembling watercolours. They were shown in a one-man exhibition 1911, in fact the first suchlike exhibition ever held.
The Taisho era, which started in the same year, was a brief but dynamic period in Japan's modern development that is often described as a Japanese version of the Roaring Twenties. Officially it lasted from 1912 to 1926, the reign of the Emperor Taisho, but the phrase “Taisho culture” evokes a society in transition in the twenties and early thirties, when the Western Jazz Age collided with traditional Japanese values of harmony and tranquility. During this period, as Japan was becoming an international power, the gap, born in the Meiji era, between a traditional agriculturally based population and the modern industrial sector, widened.
For Sôsaku Hanga artists this was a crucial period, with lots of new initiatives and artistic developments. 1910, a few years earlier, had witnessed the first publication of a monthly magazine called Shirakaba - White Birch, the most important magazine shaping the thought of the Taisho period. Shirakaba also sponsored exhibitions of Western art. In 1915 there was a major exhibition of German expressionism, mainly woodcuts, almost coinciding with the start of the new magazine Tsukubae in 1914. Tsukubae was started by Kôshirô Onchi (1891-1955), together with Shizuo Fujimori (1891-1943) and Kyôkichi Tanaka (1892-1915), while they were still students at the Tokyo Art School.
The influence of European art developments on the Sôsaku Hanga movement was enormous. The most important aspect of this was that in Europe printmaking was seen as a means of artistic expression, as valid as painting and sculpture, whereas in Japan printmaking was still generally seen as a craft, a means of reproduction. The Shin Hanga produced by Watanabe no doubt contributed to raising the appreciation of Sôsaku Hanga.
In 1918 the Nihon sôsaku hanga kyôkai - Japanese creative print society was formed, developing into the main organization for creative print makers until its dissolution in 1931 and its rebirth into a more comprehensive print association called the Nihon hanga kyôkai - Japan print cooperative society.
In the twenties the various print magazines played an important role in giving artists an opportunity to show their work. Sôsaku Hanga exhibitions were still few, and these magazines filled this gap. The most important 1920s magazine was no doubt Hanga, started by Yamaguchi Hisayoshi in 1924. He was the owner of Hanga no Ie – House of Prints in Kobe, and he had published Un’ichi Hiratsuka’s series Tokyo shinsai ato fûkei - Tokyo after the earthquake (1923-1927). Hanga, appearing four times a year, was not strictly a magazine, but a folder or envelope of prints, mounted on backing paper of uniform size. The prints were small (mostly ca. 16 x 12 cm.). It is estimated that there must have been some 300 subscribers, though the number of envelopes produced may have been somewhat larger. In 1930 publication was stopped.
Two important pre-war print series should also be mentioned: between 1916 and 1920 the publisher Nakajima Jûtarô published Nihon fûkei hanga – Print scenes of Japan, consisting of ten sets of five prints each. Between 1928 and 1932 the same publisher published Shin Tôkyo hyakkei – 100 Views of new Tokyo. Eight different artists contributed to this highly important series, Senpan Maekawa, Shizuo Fujimori, Kôshirô Onchi, Takashi Henmi, Un’ichi Hiratsuka, Sumio Kawakami, Sakuichi Fukazawa and Kanenori Suwa, in short all the important pre-war Sôsaku Hanga artists.
The 1930s were dominated by the Great Depression, which also hit USA and Europe. Nationalism become a dominant factor, the army became the strongest force within Japan, political parties weakened, and democratic government virtually disappeared. Yet Sôsaku Hanga artists continued producing works that were hardly influenced by these troubling times. Also Shin Hanga artists produced very important works during this period. In 1930 and 1936 there were two important Shin Hanga exhibitions in USA (Toledo Art Museum).
The wartime years from 1939 to 1945 constituted a metamorphosis for the Sôsaku Hanga movement. The Ichimokukai – The First Thursday Society, which was crucial to the postwar revival of Japanese prints, was formed in 1939 by the group of people who gathered in the house of Kôshirô Onchi in Tokyo. The group met once a month to discuss print subjects of. First members included Gen Yamaguchi (1896-1976) and Jun’ichiro Sekino (1914-1988). After the war American connoisseurs Ernst Hacker, William Hartnett and Oliver Statler also attended these meetings. They revived Western interest in Japanese prints. Already during the war, in 1944 the first set of prints of the Ichimokushu - The First Thursday Collection, made by its members to circulate to each other, was produced.
One of the most ironic results of the Japanese defeat and the resulting Occupation by the USA was that Americans discovered Sôsaku Hanga prints, and played a highly important role in making their importance known. William Hartnett, mentioned before as one of the Americans being present at the Ichimokukai meetings after the war, had arrived in Japan together with the Occupation forces, and his duty was to organize concerts and exhibitions for the Occupation personnel. He got into contact with Kôshirô Onchi and the group around him, and one thing led to another. Sôsaku Hanga became highly collectible, prices went up and some artists could even live from the proceeds of their work. In 1951 two Japanese print artists, Tetsurô Komai (1920-1976) and Kiyoshi Saitô (1907-1997) won first prizes at the São Paolo Art Biennial. In 1959 Oliver Statler produced his Modern Japanese Prints: An Art Reborn, a seminal work for the appreciation of Sôsaku Hanga. In 1960 Statler was involved in a landmark exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago: Japan’s Modern Prints – Sôsaku Hanga, showing 278 prints.
In the following decades Sôsaku Hanga flowered. Many Sôsaku Hanga artists were and are incredibly long-lived (Un’ichi so far holding the record, dying at age 102, shortly after having been present at a retrospective exhibition of his work in Japan), and they mostly kept producing work of high quality. Next to them many younger artists have followed in their footsteps.
In the last quarter of the 20th century woodblock prints are still being made in Japan, but many other techniques are used as well: the resulting screenprints, paperscreens, lithographs, etchings, aquatints and mezzotints have gradually become part of the international art world, and nowadays many works are made that are no longer typically Japanese. There is now even a very vigorous movement, often referred to as “New Hanga”: non-Japanese artists making woodblock prints in the traditional Japanese manner. Good examples are Paul Binnie (UK, born 1967) and Tom Kristensen (Australia, born 1962). They are not at the end of a tradition but in the middle of exploring the boundless possibilities of the woodblock medium.