Rain, herons and beautiful women. Subtly depicted, these are well represented in the exhibition d Shin hangaJapanese for ‘new prints’, in the Japan Museum Sieboldhuis in Leiden.
The ‘new print’ was an attempt by Japanese publishers to modernize the old Japanese tradition of woodblock printing after the island emerged from its isolation around 1900. No longer were popular prints made by artists together with woodblock engravers and printers, who until then had provided for mass circulation. Modern, Western printing techniques and photos largely took over this task in Japan.
But tourists and foreign collectors were (and still are) fond of the old Japanese woodblock prints ‘of the flowing life’ (ukiyo-e), with geishas and landscapes – such as Hokusai’s big wave.
One could not go on reprinting old glories indefinitely, believed the young print publisher in Tokyo, Watanabe Shozaburo. Like Western artists, some Japanese artists began making and printing woodcuts themselves without a publisher. But the publisher Watanabe wanted to renew the old Japanese craft with separate woodcarvers and block printers and artists. With more modern images.
He allowed Japanese artists to experiment with landscapes, but they remained too close to the old. This is where the ‘beautiful women’ come into the picture – also in Japanese art (such as bijinga) a popular theme. Because in that genre, publisher Watanabe found the modern style he was looking for. This was done by a Western artist, the Austrian Friedrich Capelari. He had settled in Japan in 1910, inspired by what was then very popular in Western art circles (including Vincent van Gogh). ukiyo-prints. As a Westerner, Capelari made drawings of Japanese women busy with their toilet. And they had exactly the western Japanese modern look Watanabe was looking for. He had pictures made of it. And so, although Capelari’s figures now appear somewhat wooden, with that publication in 1915 the ‘new’ Japanese printmaking was born.
As the layout of the exhibition indicates, with “Beautiful Women Before the Earthquake” and “Beautiful Women After the Earthquake,” the 1923 Tokyo earthquake was an important dividing line. About a hundred thousand people died in the earthquake, Tokyo was in ruins, printing papers and woodblocks were burned: prints from that time are rare.
Before the earthquake, Watanabe and other publishers employed mainly Japanese artists to design prints, including many of ‘beautiful women’. A highlight of this period are Hashiguchi Goyo’s elegant prints of women combing, bathing and dressing: especially his Woman combs her hair and Woman in long underwear Jump out. Value ukiyoprints still often show women with mask-like faces, the women in the ‘new graphics’ are depicted in a more naturalistic way. Since most new print designers were painters, not graphic artists, their lines are less graphic with thicker black lines than on old prints. The editions of these new, more expensive prints were also smaller than those ukiyo-e.
Print publishers quickly recovered from the earthquake. Painters such as Ito Shinsui and especially Torii Kotondo designed beautiful portraits of women, such as morning hair, of a melancholy-looking woman in bed under a mosquito net. That portrait is on the exhibition poster and in the catalogue. It is a rare print that shows the museum. Because although you can hardly imagine it now, it would have been deemed ‘too lascivious’ by the Japanese censor at the time, an unmade woman in bed in the morning, perhaps reminiscing about the night with her lover. The pressure blocks would have been destroyed, according to the catalog.
Other traditional Japanese graphic genres, such as landscape, flowers and birds, were also revived in the ‘new graphics’. Ohara Koson, for example, made bird prints, of which one of a stylized crane in the rain is particularly iconic. The little heron’s white plumage is shown with ‘blind print’ (imprint without ink). Abroad, his bird pictures were like most shin hangahugely popular, but in Japan Koson was only honored with an exhibition in 2015 for the first time.
In the landscapes, if at all, we often see people in pouring rain or snow, as a symbol of what nature may have in store. In particular, Kawase Hasui’s prints of figures under a feather tumbling towards the snow, often to ancient temples, are very evocative. It is remarkable how cleverly Japanese artists can depict snow and rain. And Takahashi Hiroaki can draw mountain streams so that you can almost hear the water bubbling, the catalog says. And that is right. Although the ‘new print art’ also shows urban scenes of the renewed Japan of the 1930s, with modern bridges and cars and electric lights, that trend seems to have passed, as in 1941 Japan itself with the attack on the US naval base Pearl Harbor World Second war bombing.
Also read: Modern Japanese graphic artists wanted to do everything themselves