Modernity, Internationalism, Vision!: The Dramatic Era of New & Creative Print Movements in 20th-Century Japan

Modernity, Internationalism, Vision!: The Dramatic Era of New & Creative Print Movements in 20th-Century Japan

The shin hanga (new print 新版画) and sōsaku hanga (creative print 創作版画) movements in early 20th century Japan revolutionised the ancient art of printmaking, so closely aligned with the nation’s cultural tapestry. In Sotheby’s auction covering this exciting and progressive era, Landscape To City: A Collection of 20th Century Japanese Prints, we’re presented with a collection of rare and exquisite examples of printmaking art.
The shin hanga (new print 新版画) and sōsaku hanga (creative print 創作版画) movements in early 20th century Japan revolutionised the ancient art of printmaking, so closely aligned with the nation’s cultural tapestry. In Sotheby’s auction covering this exciting and progressive era, Landscape To City: A Collection of 20th Century Japanese Prints, we’re presented with a collection of rare and exquisite examples of printmaking art.

A t the beginning of the 20th century two new print movements emerged in Japan due to the changes that had occurred during the Meiji period (1868–1912) when Japan transformed through Westernisation and modernisation.

The shin hanga (literally New Print) movement was initiated around 1910 by the publisher Watanabe Shozaburo (1885–1962), to reinvigorate the traditional method of Japanese print production. Shin hanga were produced by the ukiyo-e studio system, the so-called ‘ukiyo-e quartet’, that involved the artist, carver, printer, and publisher*.

The New Prints continued to present typical ukiyo-e subjects, like actor portraits, beauty prints, landscapes, and cityscapes as well as birds and flowers (like the works of Ohara Koson, 1877–1945). Though incorporating values of traditional Japanese woodblock prints, the movement integrated Western elements and painting conventions, inspired by, for example, Impressionism.

Effects of light and the expression of individual moods were introduced, creating a modern sensitivity**. The result was a fascinating new style of prints, demonstrating the finest qualities of print production - mica backgrounds, embossing, and burnishing - as well as decorative patterns created by a baren, a printer’s pad.

In the auction Landscape To City: A Collection of 20th Century Japanese Prints, we find the most iconic shin hanga landscape artists including Kawase Hasui, Takahashi Shotei, Tsuchiya Koitsu and Yoshida Hiroshi. Moreover, shin hanga artists famous for their prints of elegant women are represented by the works of Ito Shinsui, Kobayakawa Kiyoshi, Torii Kotondo and Hashiguchi Goyo.

Watanabe especially targeted the export market in the US and Europe, as shin hanga strongly appealed to Western buyers, becoming hugely popular outside Japan. And this cut both ways - as Western artists were inspired by the new prints, like the American painter and woodblock print artist Lilian May Miller. The shin hanga movement flourished until the late 1950s, when it went into decline with the deaths of the main artists.

Sosaku hanga (literally, creative prints) are often conceived in opposition to ukiyo-e and shin hanga. Creative Prints were influenced by the Western concept of artist as total creator of the print, stressing individual creativity through the medium of woodblock. Here, the artist has complete control of the process, from beginning to end.

Creative Prints are:
Self-drawn (jiga 自画)
Self-carved (jikoku 自刻)
Self-printed (jizuri 自摺).

But a great many Creative Print artists also worked with block-cutters and printers. The print Fisherman’ (gyofu) by Yamamoto Kanae (1882–1946), published in the July 1904 issue of the poetry journal Myojo (Morning Star), is generally seen as the seminal work of the movement.

While Fisherman was not the first print to involve full creative intent, it was the first to be imbued with an ‘artistic consciousness’. Creative Prints appeared in form of individual prints, in print series, book designs and were published in magazines like the Myojo, Hosun (Square Inch) and Tsukuhae (Moonglow). Thematically, traditional topics like, figures, portraits, landscapes, and nature motifs continued to be popular among sosaku hanga artists, though stylistically their prints show a strong departure from previous aesthetics by displaying inspirations from Japanese folk-art traditions, and Western concepts of abstract and Expressionist art, that formed a compelling eclecticism.

In 1918, a group of artists in Tokyo formed the Japan Creative Print Society (Nihon sosaku hanga kyokai). Their goal was to promote printmaking as a modern art form. By the late 1920s-1930s, Sosaku hanga was well established and being included in the government-sponsored Teiten exhibitions in 1927 and in 1931. That same year, the Japan Creative Print Society was absorbed into the Japan Print Association (Nihon hanga kyokai), which became Japan’s largest print association. The post-war period saw an even wider variety of methods of depiction, styles, techniques, and media in the works of sosaku hanga artists. The São Paulo Art Biennale in 1951 brought the movement international recognition.

One of the founders, leaders, and innovators of the movement, Onchi Koshiro (1891-1955), credited to have produced the first abstract work (‘Light Time’) in 1915, is presented in the auction with the complete set of Beauties of the Four Seasons (Bijin shiki). The auction also features another significant artist of the Japan Print Association school, the self-taught Saito Kiyoshi (1907-1997).

With post-war artists such as Sekino Junichiro (1914–1988) Hashimoto Okiie (1899–1993) and Shinagawa Takumi (1908–2009) the auction spans the golden age of New and Creative Print eras, chronicling the vivid expansion of the imagination and possibility opened during this groundbreaking and pivotal moment in Japanese art history.

*Watanabe collaborated with artists like Ito Shinsui (1898–1972), Kawase Hasui (1883–1957), Natori Shunsen (1886–1960), Takahashi Shotei (Hiroaki, 1871–1945) and Tsuchiya Koitsu (1870–1949).

**Other important artists of shin hanga who later worked independently from Watanabe were Hashiguchi Goyo (1880–1921) and Yoshida Hiroshi (1876–1950). Significant artists who designed prints in the shin hanga mode for other publishers were Torii Kotondo (1900–1977), Kobayakawa Kiyoshi (1897–1948), Kitano Tsunetomi (1880–1947) in Osaka and Yoshikawa Kampo (1894–1979) in Kyoto.

Japanese Art

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