As the Bookbuilders of Boston intern at the Burns Library this year, I’ve spent most of my time working with and learning about the Japanese Prints Collection. While the collection has a large number of prints that were produced during the Tokugawa era and would be classified as “ukiyo-e,” it also contains a significant amount of modern prints produced after the Meiji era. The Meiji Restoration of 1868, which restored imperial rule to Japan, signaled a turning point for Japan’s artistic development as the country opened its ports and began to modernize. Ukiyo-e prints began to decline in popularity during the Meiji era following the introduction of photography and Western painting styles introduced through trade. After this initial period of disinterest, woodblock printing regained some of its former popularity in the Taisho (1912-1926) and Showa (1926-1989) eras through two different modern interpretations: sōsaku hanga (“creative prints”) and shin hanga (“new prints”).
The sōsaku hanga movement began in the early 20th century, epitomized by a print created by Yamamoto Kanae in 1904 called Fisherman. Although Kanae spent his early years studying European engraving, he produced a woodblock version of the initial sketch of Fisherman using Japanese tools called komasuki and a style of wood plank that was traditionally associated with Japanese prints. Kanae’s use of komasuki, which were normally used to get rid of excess wood shavings, allowed for the introduction of white lines into the image. This technique, combined with Kanae’s European training, resulted in an artistic style distinct from traditional ukiyo-e prints. The decision to create the print alone also set it apart from the normal production of ukiyo-e prints, which usually required four to five people doing specific jobs such as carving and printing. This emphasis on a sole creator would become one of the defining elements of the sōsaku hanga movement, whose artists emphasized the importance of performing all elements of the woodblock print production themselves, as it was their own creative vision that they believed could not be executed by others to the same effect.
Unfortunately, sōsaku hanga as a movement was often met with indifference by the Japanese art scene, which saw it as an extension of the mass-produced ukiyo-e prints from the Tokugawa era. One of the artists that garnered more mainstream recognition of sōsaku hanga prints in Japan and abroad was Kiyoshi Saito, who won first prize at the Sao Paolo Art Biennial in 1951 with a woodblock print, beating out other entries of Japanese oil paintings. This victory gave sōsaku hanga much wider acceptance, and Saito remains an important figure in the movement along with artists such as Un’ichi Hiratsuka. The Burns Library collection contains excellent examples of the sōsaku hanga movement in pieces by Kihei Sasajima, Kiyoshi Saito, Okiie Hashimoto, Tekiho Imoto, and Unichi Hiratsuka.
The shin hanga, or “new prints,” movement contrasted sharply with the sōsaku hanga movement’s focus on self-produced prints and held on to the traditions of ukiyo-e and its division of labor between the print artist (hangaka), carver (horishi), and printer (surishi). The shin hanga movement was orchestrated and maintained by publisher Watanabe Shozaburo, who worked with a variety of artists and artisans to create prints that evoked traditional ukiyo-e themes, primarily for the export market. The movement gained traction in the early 1920s and found its greatest success in the works of Kawase Hasui, who produced over 100 prints for Shozaburo over their long period of collaboration. Hasui began his career exhibiting Japanese style paintings (nihon-ga) before working with Shozaburo. Hasui has been called the “Hiroshige of the Showa period.” Other notable artists who worked with Shozaburo include Ishiwata Koitsu, who began his career in hanga after developing an interest in Hasui’s works, and Takahashi Shotei, who was one of the first artists to work with Shozabuto and created woodblock print designs as well as greeting cards for export. The Burns Library collection contains works from the shin hanga movement from artists such as Kawase Hasui, Shiro Kasamatsu, Takahashi Shotei, and Ishiwata Koitsu.
This collection is now open to researchers, and you can see even more beautiful images on Flickr. For more information on this collection, please see the finding aid or contact the Burns Library at 617-552-4861 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Erin Furlong, Bookbuilders of Boston Burns Library 2013-2014 Intern and A & S, Class of 2014
Marks, Andreas, and Sonya Rhie Quintanilla. Dreams and Diversions: Essays on Japanese Woodblock Prints. San Diego, CA: San Diego Museum of Art, n.d.
Meritt, Helen, and Nanako Yamada. Guide to Modern Japanese Woodblock Prints. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 1992.
Merritt, Helen. Modern Japanese Woodblock Prints: The Early Years. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii, 1990.
Putney, Carolyn M., Kendall H. Brown, Koyama Shuko, and Paul Binnie. Fresh Impressions: Early Modern Japanese Prints. Toledo, OH: Toledo Museum of Art, 2013.
Statler, Oliver. Japan’s Modern Prints – Sōsaku Hanga. Chicago, IL: Art Institute of Chicago, 1960.