Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 31, 2014
A New Way Forward: Japanese Hanga of the 20th Century 2014.
Exhibition schedule: Exhibition schedule: USC Pacific Asia Museum, Pasadena, April 25, 2014–April 19, 2015
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Saitō Kiyoshi. Maiko (Apprentice Geisha) (ca. 1960). Ink and color on paper. Gift of Isabel T. Pulvers, 2002.42.3.

A New Way Forward: Japanese Hanga of the 20th Century is a small exhibition, consisting of sixteen prints and one album, which will be rotated once during the course of the show. The exhibition allows viewers to compare styles and techniques in prints of the shin hanga lineage with those of the sōsaku hanga group. Shin hanga (new prints) as a practice was organized by Watanabe Shōzaburō (1885–1962) in Tokyo, who found artists willing to design prints with a Westernized drawing style, volume, atmosphere, and perspective on traditional themes, especially beauties (bijin), landscapes or cityscapes, and kabuki actors. Designs from these artists would be assigned to teams of professional woodblock carvers and printers, a process by which the look and mood of the final artwork could often change. The sōsaku hanga (creative print) group, beginning in 1905, sought legitimacy for printmaking as a fine art by assigning to the artist total creative control of the printmaking process. In addition to designing, the artist would also carve and color her or his own prints and in such a way to produce exactly the print they imagined. The central advocate of the sōsaku hanga movement, Onchi Kōshirō (1891–1955), strongly argued that employment of artisans who carved and printed a work turned it into reproduction, rather than an original work of art.

Although the shin hanga movement began in the mid-1910s, and so was nearly contemporary with sōsaku hanga, various museums in Southern California find themselves with few early examples of the latter, having received mostly donations of works made and collected from the 1950s to the 1970s by Americans who could acquire such prints with relative ease. This category of collectors is responsible for the majority of the prints in A New Way Forward that have come into the USC-Pacific Asia Museum since the 1990s, and here is the crux of my issue with the exhibition. Using only prints from within the collection has meant that it is impossible to compare contemporary prints with each other, and so the viewer is left with the impression that shin hanga and sōsaku hanga prints were not produced within the same social milieu. In the exhibited groupings, postwar abstraction becomes an exaggerated comparison to prewar romantic realism. The sōsaku hanga prints of the 1920s, the age of the majority of shin hanga prints in the show, tended more toward expressionism than abstraction, with the exception of Onchi’s work.

The installation is arranged as small groupings of two to three prints which allows for comparisons on related subjects by shin hanga and sōsaku hanga (or purported sōsaku hanga) artists, with a single pre-modern ukiyo-e (floating world picture) print commencing the exhibition. In the first grouping is the print by ukiyo-e artist Kitagawa Utamaro, entitled Abura-ya Osome (1799), which sets the stage in its proximity to Itō Shinsui’s Rouge (1922). Both are bust-length portraits with women facing three-quarters toward proper right and with hands in view. This gives viewers a good reference point with which to consider how much shin hanga evolved from its ukiyo-e precursor. Although Utamaro practiced a relatively realistic form of portraiture within ukiyo-e norms, formulas for eyes, nose, and mouth contrast with the individuated features of Shinsui’s model. This, for me, is the most useful comparison in the show. Saitō Kiyoshi’s Maiko (ca. 1960) is the sōsaku hanga comparison here. The label points out that Saitō’s young entertainer is shown from the back in order to display the alluring nape of her neck, and that the print starkly differs from the Shinsui work due to the flattening of forms onto the picture plane and the geometric treatment of kimono and obi. All three figures in these compositions are rendered against a neutral ground, the Utamaro and Shinsui prints on mica and the Saitō on an evenly textured chattered backdrop. The perfection of printing on Saitō’s piece suggests that he might have been working with specialized printers in his atelier and diverges strongly in polish from both his earlier prints and the sōsaku hanga prints that were contemporary with the Shinsui.

While it might be instructive to contrast the romantic realism of shin hanga and the relative modernity of sōsaku hanga, the danger of making a comparison between prints produced nearly forty years apart is that the original arguments between artists of the shin hanga and sōsaku hanga lineages is already over by the 1960s. A new taste for abstraction had entered Japan by the late 1930s, sweeping through the arts in the 1950s. Thus the geometric approach in a work like Maiko is more a symptom of the time when it was produced than the sōsaku hanga path of the artist who produced it. By the late 1950s, Watanabe’s star artists were either deceased or had moved into other areas of endeavor, so that the debates between shin hanga and sōsaku hanga proponents were mostly exhausted. Comparisons between shin hanga works of the 1920s and 1930s with sōsaku hanga prints of the 1960s is made at several other points in the exhibition, as juxtapositions on the topics of famous places, spiritual themes, traditional villages, and new colonies continue to tell the story of parallel styles.

The second grouping has city and temple views of the shin hanga type by Kasamatsu Shirō and Tsuchiya Kōitsu along with a shopping street and pagoda scene by Inagaki Nenjirō, the former from 1933 and 1934, respectively, and the latter from 1967. The label discusses the updated idea of the meisho (famous place) concept which was traditionally drawn from locations mentioned in poetic classics, but now could refer to a bustling urban center like the Ginza, seen in Shirō’s print. A comparison not mentioned here is the sacred precincts of the temple in Kōitsu’s print, quiet except for one kimono-clad woman carrying a traditional ja-no-me (snake’s eye) parasol, with the mercantile street in Inagaki’s print, pedestrians in a mix of Japanese and Western dress, the pagoda shown beyond a tangle of telephone wires. The latter work reflects the temple’s contemporary reality more than its timeless cultural zone. The artists’ choices of locale and atmosphere underscore some of the differences seen in shin hanga and sōsaku hanga prints. An issue that crops up for me here is that Inagaki was using a textile technique, working with a stencil to make the print, which puts him more in the category of the mingei (folk art) movement, as he calls upon traditional Japanese craft skills, in opposition to sōsaku hanga artists whose woodcuts were carved using Western methods.

Similarly in the grouping of Watanabe Sadao’s Christian scene of Three Wise Men (1966) with shin hanga artist Uehara Konan’s Great Buddha at Kamakura (ca. 1930) and Munakata Shikō’s Tsumadachi (1958), Watanabe’s work is again a stencil print derived from the kappazuri textile technique, and he is generally classified as a mingei artist. The label mentions Watanabe’s expressive lines, but as these lines were made with a stencil, it is in fact more the forms themselves with their intriguing distortions and abstracted shapes that give energy to the print. Munakata was a member of the mingei movement from the late 1920s forward, and so did not participate in the specific arguments between shin hanga and sōsaku hanga artists. His highly expressive figuration and carving, however, make a striking comparison to Konan’s idealized crepuscular view.

The pairing of Yoshida Hiroshi’s Kura in Tamanoura (1930) with Mori Yoshitoshi’s Village Roofs (1961) compares an artist working in the shin hanga style who oversaw his own printing (this was not mentioned in the label), in effect blending priorities of both shin hanga and sōsaku hanga modes, with an artist who yet again started out with kappazuri stencil prints, gradually making his way to woodblock printing. Following Mori’s initial allegiance to the mingei movement, he moved into sōsaku hanga in the 1960s, earning the ire of mingei movement founder, Yanagi Sōetsu. The choice of three artists working with stencil techniques within a total of seventeen images can skew the observer’s viewpoint about the different approaches to woodblock printing at the basis of the debate between shin hanga and sōsaku hanga artists.

However, a grouping with scenes of Korea by Kawase Hasui and Hiratsuka Un’ichi hits the target. The label for this cluster has a fascinating quote by Hiratsuka: “I am emphasizing the ink in traditional painting which should be combined with the expressive methods of the European style.” His belief, so clearly spelled out here and illustrated in black and white, not only contrasts strongly with the glowing colors and descriptive lines of the shin hanga print, but also speaks to the time in which he made that statement. His later, more stolid prints lose the expressiveness that he describes.

Final comparisons include one set related to composition, in which the contrast is so stark that it is detrimental to both prints. These are by Ohara Shōson and Maki Haku, the latter printing off of concrete rather than wood. Perhaps a better comparison would have been between topics more typical of shin hanga versus a more exclusively sōsaku hanga topic, like the aftermath of disaster or the plight of the worker. The final pairing contrasts prints by two generations of the Yoshida family: Hiroshi, who founded a printing studio and worked with a shin hanga aesthetic, and his son Tōshi, who after Hiroshi’s death moved into abstraction.

A New Way Forward successfully makes the point that there were two contrasting print styles practiced in Japan. Yet the displayed examples of sōsaku hanga works generally do not reflect the 1910s through the 1950s timeframe when arguments between artists of the shin hanga and sōsaku hanga movements were at their peak. The search for a path to modernism was most fervid in those decades, and works from the 1960s convey comparatively new priorities, such as the exploration of abstract expressionism.

Hollis Goodall
Curator, Japanese Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.