It is the publisher, of course, who bears ultimate responsibility both for the selection of the design for printmaking from the artist's sketchbook and for the final publication. Watanabe has provided us with his thoughts as publisher: “As it is the main object of a colour-print to express its peculiar colour-feeling superior to an original painting or a draught, we take interest in it if it is nicely printed. And if it does not turn out satisfactorily, the renewed printing is often tried more than ten times at intervals, and the wood-blocks are improved or added to when necessary. Because the printing is supervised by the publisher, when he feels like it the publication is often delayed, sometimes taking three or four years after wood-blocks are made. So much as that, both the artist and the publisher take pains not to bring out trash-works into the world.” This description is accompanied by a picture of artist and printer at work. Watanabe entitled it “the artist Hasui is supervising the printing of a proof sheet by Ono Gintaro,” thus leaving no doubt as to the artist’s role even in the very last stages of the process.
Narazaki provides us with interesting insight into the artist as printmaker, stating that an artist seeking unrestricted expression of talent is unsuited for such a career. “The printmaker must constantly keep in mind that his paintings and sketches must ultimately be reduced to carvings in wood. Even the subject matter is affected. The woodblock artist must, of necessity, suppress and inhibit uncontrolled expression of feeling.” He quotes Hasui directly: “Some say my drawings look like woodblock prints. I sketched, however, scenes that can be expressed as prints. In earlier days I used to sketch wherever I pleased. In more recent years I started sketching scenes where it was unnecessary to move even a single blade of grass in designing my prints. I found that the very landscapes started looking like prints to me. I do not paint subjective impressions. My work is based on reality, I cannot falsify, even though I can simplify. I try to make the people in my pictures characteristic of local manners and customs. If I’m drawing a large temple gate, I’ll draw a distant view. Then I get closer and draw the structure of each part in careful detail. I make mental impressions of the light and color at the time of sketching. Later, back at my inn, I fill in the color. While coloring the sketch, I am already imagining the effects in a woodblock print.”
Making a Living as a Print Maker
Hasui was not an employee of the S. Watanabe Color Print Company. He was paid for the sketches Watanabe selected for transformation into prints and for work that was specifically commissioned. He sold his watercolors as a source of additional income. Japanese print artists, by tradition, have not been well-paid and Hasui was no exception. He designed over fifty prints for other publishers than Watanabe for reasons that were primarily economic.
The earthquake and fire of 1923 destroyed Hasui’s home and sketchbooks of his travels which were filled with ideas for future prints. Watanabe’s place of business was also destroyed along with all unsold prints and the blocks from which they were prepared. Anticipating the reconstruction of his establishment, Watanabe provided Hasui with funds to enable him to travel for one hundred days and prepare new sketches for prints. Upon his return, he and Ito Shinsui each derived some income by providing sketches to the Itsetatsu company which were published in 1925 and 1926.
A few years later Hasui had a new home constructed. Narazaki relates that there was a misunderstanding between Hasui and the builder, resulting in substantial cost overruns. To generate additional income he designed prints for the publishers Kawaguchi, Bijutsusha, Tokyo Shobido, Doi Sadaichi, and Kato between 1927 and 1932. Kawaguchi, in particular, produced some beautiful prints. In those trying years Hasui was forced to be very frugal. As an aside, Narazaki tells us that in the early 1930s people were whispering to one another that “Hasui is still wearing the kimono that Watanabe gave him.” Some believe that such statements were also meant to imply that Hasui’s work was being overly influenced by Watanabe’s preferences.
If we met the artist, we would have had no clue as to the intensity, zeal and sense of mission with which he approached his work. His biographers refer to him repeatedly as honest, faithful, punctual, conscientious, straight-forward, and kind. He had a sense of humor which he excluded from his work. He enjoyed word-play and puns, which come readily in Japanese because the ideograms have multiple meanings. His humor was frequently self-directed, as when he called himself “hanga-do” which translates to “print publisher” but the same symbols also mean “half play, half art” or “semi-serious artist.”
Documenting Japan's Scenery
In his forty years as a print artist he traveled the length and breadth of Japan to record for posterity the wonders of its scenery. He portrayed its broad vistas and its single alleys, its castles and temples and also its farmers' huts. All types of weather conditions were depicted, all times of day and night and all its moods from deep gloom to cherry-blossom springtime. Many of his pictures are devoid of people and those with more than two are rare. When he does include human figures they are always common people engaged in dignified pursuits, whether they be farmers at work, monks on pilgrimage, father or mother with child, or just individuals coping with rain or snow or lost in thought as they contemplate the beauties of their surroundings. Hasui’s figures are almost always seen from behind. We become mesmerized by his mood pictures. Frontality would cause the viewer to become self-conscious and thus break the spell. The few exceptions are images of laboring people coming home at the end of the day, obviously so tired that they would take no notice of the viewer anyway.
He recorded Japan of the Taisho (1912-1926) and early Showa (1926-1957) Periods in the same way that Kobayashi Kiyochika (1847-1915) preserved a record for us of the Meiji days (1867-1912). Because of the nostalgic feelings they evoke in a nation fearing the loss of its traditional ways, these prints are being widely sought by the Japanese of today.
Intangible Cultural Treasure
In 1953 the Japanese government’s Committee for the Preservation of Intangible Cultural Treasures wished to honor traditional printmaking and took steps to confer upon both Hasui and Shinsui the status of National Living Treasure, the former for his landscape artistry and the latter for his bijin-ga. However, objections were raised because their work involved the essential collaboration of artist, engraver, and printer, making it awkward to single out one participant in each collaboration for formal recognition. Instead the artists were commissioned to create new prints, the preparation of which was carefully documented. The resulting artworks and the records were then enshrined in places of honor and designated Intangible Cultural Treasures. Narazaki, Hasui’s biographer, served as recorder of the process of woodblock printmaking for this purpose.
Hasui died November 27, 1957. In 1982 there was a retrospective exhibition of 180 of his approximately 620 major prints in Tokyo. The catalogue was entitled Kawase Hasui: The End of the Line For Ukiyo-e. If it was indeed the end, it was a conclusion in grand style.
Carnegie Museum of Art Exhibition "Kawase Hasui: Landscapes of Modern Japan" (November 13, 2004 - May 8, 2005)
The color woodblock print has a long and illustrious history in Japan, a history that culminated in the great landscape prints of artists such as Utagawa Hiroshige in the early nineteenth century. After the Imperial government opened Japanese ports to the Western world in 1868, the publication of color prints declined but was revitalized in the early years of the 20th century by artists inspired by a more modern Japan, but a Japan with deep roots in native tradition.
Kawase Hasui (1883–1957), one of modern Japan's most important and prolific printmakers, drew his inspiration from his native landscape. Initially a painter and commercial illustrator, Hasui came to printmaking when he was nearly 40 years old, but with a talent uniquely suited to translating the landscape into print. Hasui was a traditionalist, modest and self-effacing, devoted to recording both the great monuments and the undiscovered pleasures of Tokyo, Kyoto, and the Japanese countryside.
Hasui's landscapes portray a Japan quickly disappearing. In the early 20th century, Japan was rapidly becoming westernized and modern. In the aftermath of the devastating earthquake of 1923, Tokyo burned to the ground; the city was rebuilt, only to be destroyed once more during the Allied firebombing of 1945. Hasui's home was destroyed both times, but nowhere are the effects of such cataclysmic events evident in his art. In his prints, tranquility and beauty reign, as though an idyllic Japan existed in his mind's eye, a Japan immune to change, immutable in its purity. Hasui designed approximately 600 prints over a career that spanned some 40 forty years. Near the end of his career in 1952, the Japanese government officially recognized Hasui for his contribution to Japanese culture.
The prints in this exhibition are drawn from the museum's James B. Austin Collection of Japanese prints and from a private Pittsburgh collection.
Minneapolis Institute of Arts Exhibition "Woodblock Prints by Kawase Hasui" (Saturday, March 7, 2009—Sunday, May 31, 2009)
Kawase Hasui (1883–1957) was one of the first artists associated with the shin-hanga (literally “new print”) movement that arose in the 1920s. Shin-hanga artists specialized in nostalgic, romanticized views of Japan, which were produced using the time-honored system of enlisting the aid of a publisher, woodblock carvers, and highly skilled printers. Thus, “new” referred to the revival of traditional woodblock print production. In contrast, artists associated with the sosaku-hanga (creative print) movement were inspired by the Western ideal of the independent artist who carved and printed his own designs.
In the wake of the rapid modernization of Japan that began at the end of 19th century, Hasui’s traditional approach to print production—and his conventional subjects—were not immediately popular in Japan. Instead, the first and most ardent collectors of his work were Americans and Europeans who lamented the changes that were taking place in Japan and who longed for the charm and exoticism of the country when it was first “opened” to the West.
This exhibition features 13 prints by Hasui, showing how the artist’s eyes captured the timeless beauty of Japanese scenery in the midst of a major transformation that was taking place in the country.
Prints from The Lavenberg Collection of Japanese Prints
Ukiyo-e to Shin Hanga: Changing Tastes
in Japanese Woodblock Prints
Portland Japanese Garden Pavilion
20 Nov 2021 - 30 Jan 2022
“Ukiyo-e to Shin Hanga: Changing Tastes in Japanese Woodblock Prints” illuminates the dramatic social, political, and economic shifts in Japanese culture between the mid-19th and early 20th centuries through a close look at two artists: Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) and Kawase Hasui (1883-1957).
As Japanese demand for traditional woodblock prints declined, the innovative print publisher, Watanabe Shōzaburō (1885-1962), sought to bring it back to life. Starting in 1906, as a publisher of woodblock reproductions of ukiyo-e master works, Watanabe took ukiyo-e’s business model to create a new type of woodblock print, aptly called shin hanga, or “new prints.”
Shin hanga portrayed traditional subject matter in a contemporary manner, its artists steeped in traditional Japanese and Western artistic styles. Watanabe, who started his career working for a Japanese exporter, marketed and sold these new prints as “fine art,” made in limited editions (a Western convention) to a largely Western market. Employing master woodblock carvers and printers using the finest printing materials, Watanabe sought out artists who shared his artistic vision.
Of these artists, the most successful and prolific was Kawase Hasui, who specialized in landscape views. Hasui masterfully designed evocative images of a classical, scenic Japan while deftly incorporating Western-inspired shading and perspective to appeal to a wider audience. His stunning contemporary landscapes rarely included indications of Japan’s rapid industrialization, and instead focused on quiet scenes capturing different seasons with the occasional solitary figure in harmony with the natural world.
Hasui’s work was widely marketed for sale in the U.S. and Europe, calling attention to the unique attractions of the Japanese landscape and contributing to the revitalization of the three-hundred year old Japanese tradition of color woodblock printing.
Kawase Hasui and His Contemporaries: The Shin Hanga (New Print) Movement in Landscape Art,, Irwin J. Patcher, Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse, 1986.
Visions of Japan: Kawase Hasui's Masterpieces, Kendall H. Brown, Hotei Publishing, 2004
Water and Shadow: Kawase Hasui and Japanese Landscape Prints, Kendall H. Brown (ed.), Hotei Publishing, 2014.
Two catalogue raisonnés have been published as follows:
Kawase Hasui; The Complete Woodblock Prints, Kendall Brown; Amy Reigle Newland, Amsterdam, Hotei Publishing, KIT Publishers, 2003
Kawase Hasui Mokuhangashū, Narazaki, Muneshige, ed., Kodansha & Mainichi Shimbun, Tokyo, 1979