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"Hanga" is the Japanese word for print. Collectors and friends of Japanese art prints are often confronted with the terms "sosaku hanga", "shin hanga" and "moku hanga". This article, meant for newbies in the subject of Japanese prints, tries to explain in plain words what it is all about.
At the beginning of the 20th century the old, traditional craft and trade of Japanese woodblock printmaking, usually wrapped up as ukiyo-e, was in danger of becoming obsolete. The Japanese had learned the technique of making book pages and images using woodblocks from the Chinese many centuries ago, and had brought it to an incredible perfection. Woodblock prints had never been regarded as fine art in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. It was rather seen as a craft, a kind of letter press, copy machine and print facility for cheap, mass-produced images for a mass market - comparable to the modern poster market.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century traditional ukiyo-e had been widely replaced by Western printing techniques like lithography and photo-mechanical printing machines. The remaining artists and craftmen (carvers and printers) had a tough time. Most of them made a meager living as newspaper and magazine illustrators.
The publishers - the fourth column in the ukiyo-e team - kept themselves above water-level by producing reproductions of famous designs by old masters and exporting them to Europe or the United States of America.
Out of this general decline, two new art movements were born - the shin hanga ("new prints"), and the sosaku hanga ("creative prints") movement. The beginning of both movements can be seen around ca. 1910.
Both groups were heavily opposed to each other about the right concept of art - a kind of philosophical controversy. But both movements had one thing in common. They both intended to transform the old form of Japanese woodblock printmaking from a craft into fine art.
The concept of shin hanga was the more traditional and Japanese one. The dogma was to keep the old way of creating a woodblock print in a highly specialized team of artist, carver, printer and publisher. In this team the artist made the design and at best supervised the work of the carvers and printers. The publisher was responsible for sales and the commercial success. In such a team the publisher was usually the decision maker. He had to pay the artist, the carvers and printers, and thus was geared for commercial success. The carvers and printers were on the lower side of appreciation and received less money for their work than the artist. However, in our view they were the ones with the highest degree of artisan skill. An apprenticeship for carvers and printers could take up to 10 years.
So what was the modernization contribution of shin hanga? The shin hanga guys added some modern Western features to traditional Japanese subjects. The essential feature was the use of light and shadow. The Japanese had learned this from the French impressionists. Another Western feature was perspective. But that was not really new. Artists like Ando Hiroshige had used it before.
The third and probably decisive factor for shin hanga was their sales concept. It was catered from the beginning for export of the prints to North America and Europe. In plain words, the prints were designed and created in a way that should please foreigners. Shin hanga images show beautiful landscapes with an intact nature, geishas in kimonos on their way home under a full moon, fishing boats sailing under a red sky, and above all that majestic Mount Fuji in the background. Critics of shin hanga come up with the reproach that the world shown on shin hanga images was one that had ceased to exist a long time ago. How right they are! But does it justify the conclusion that shin hanga is some kind of kitsch art, art for people with bad tastes! In our view certainly not!
Shin hanga was not an art movement founded by a group of artists. When we speak of shin hanga we must mention one man - Shozaburo Watanabe, 1885-1962. He was everything for shin hanga: the founder, the driving force and mentor of the movement. At a very young age Mr. Shozaburo Watanabe had established his own print shop. In the beginning his core business was the production of reproductions that he exported to the U.S.A and Europe.
Mr. Shozaburo Watanabe had a keen and rigid business sense, and a feeling what could sell in Western markets. He began to give commissions to a group of artists for designs of modern woodblock prints. In the beginning he cooperated with Western artists living in Japan like the Austrian Fritz Capelari. He thought that only a Western artist was able to make a design attractive to foreigners. But soon Japanese artists became the supporting pillar for Mr. Watanabe's export business.
The Watanabe enterprise was successful from the very beginning. Several artists were busy making designs, and in the Watanabe shop a small crew of carvers and printers were busy creating prints. But on September 1, 1923 Tokyo and Yokohama were hit by a devastating earthquake, the Great Kanto earthquake. An estimated 140,000 people lost their lives due to the earthquake and - much worse - due to the subsequent fires that broke out everywhere. Watanabe's print shop and with it all woodblocks on stock burned down to the grounds. But the Watanabe enterprise recovered fast from the disaster. The commercial decline began towards the late 1930s when Japan's political and military aggressiveness in China, the outbreak of world war II in Europe, and in 1941 the attack on Pearl Harbor, brought the demand for Japanese products to a standstill in Northern America and Europe.
After world war II, mainly in the 1950s print production soared again. It was the American occupation force in Japan that placed large orders for shin hanga. Shops like Watanabe or the Yoshida studios could hardly meet the U.S. demand.
Watanabe died in 1962. With the year of his death, the shin hanga movement had ceased to exist in its original vigor, although there were excellent artists like Toshi Yoshida who continued to create great prints in typical shin hanga style.
The subjects of shin hanga are related to the typical genre of ukiyo-e:
For each of these subjects Watanabe had his favorite artist with whom he cooperated closely and sometimes for a lifetime (Hasui Kawase). They were Hasui Kawase for landscapes, Koson Ohara for kacho-e, Ito Shinsui for bijin (beautiful women) and Natori Shunsen for actor portraits.
This was the core group of the Watanabe shin hanga artists. Watanabe was not the only shin hanga publisher. There were a few more in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka. But he was by far the dominating factor. There were also a few artists who were independent and had their own studios and own sales distribution. Among them Hiroshi Yoshida was the most important one. He founded the Yoshida Studios together with his wife Fujio after they had come back in 1925 from an extensive study and sales tour to the United States and Europe.
Some of the best known artists of the shin hanga movement are:
And there are quite a few Western artist who created woodblock prints while they lived in Japan, and whose works fit into the categorization of shin hanga.
Compared to the shin hanga movement, the sosaku hanga movement and the artists following its ideas had a much tougher time in every respect. The followers of sosaku hanga picked up the Western understanding of fine art, and the concept of creativity. According to their understanding, the artist had to do all steps of the creation of an art object himself.
This concept was opposed to the old teamwork idea that had pushed Japanese woodblock prints to a artistic and technical level that has remained unrivalled in the world until our days. The founding father of sosaku hanga was Kanae Yamamoto 1882-1946, a gifted but hapless artist who - on the way home from studies in Europe - experienced the Russian revolution in 1916. Infiltrated with theories of socialism and communism, he engaged himself in illusionary projects like "Children's Free Art" and "Farmer's Art Movement".
The sosaku hanga artists had a nearly religious zest to do everything themselves including the carving and printing of a woodblock print. In the beginning none of the sosaku hanga artists had any professional training in these skills. They were self-taught. And most of the sosaku hanga prints look accordingly: clumsy, technically challenged, not very elaborate, simple. But that is what makes sosaku hanga so charming! It is right away the simplicity and the naive charm that makes these prints so attractive for collectors and art lovers. And if you are looking for more sophistication, you can find that too. Junichiro Sekino for instance was a master in all skills.
One of the artists, Senpan Maekawa, brought this dilemna later to the point:
"It took me ten years to learn technique. Later, when I got acquainted with some artisans, I found out they could have taught me the same things in a few hours."
And in the same interview he stated:
"Creative prints (sosaku hanga) were small and amateurish in those days. I was always preaching that we had to make them bigger and better."
The tragedy of sosaku hanga is that the artists adhered to a concept of Western art that has always existed more in theory than in practice. Successful old masters like D�rer or Rubens maintained art studios with dozens of apprentices who worked under their masters close or loose supervision. Modern Western artists like Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali or Joan Mir� used professional printing studios like Mourlot in Paris to produce works on paper. Sometimes not even the designs were made by these masters of modern Western art.
The mentor of the sosaku hanga movement was Koshiro Onchi, one of the artists himself. Born into a well-off family, he became the focus point for a group of artists. They met regularly in Onchi's house for discussions and projects like exhibitions or the publication of art magazines. Their projects were ambitious but amateurish like the art magazines that usually were discontinued after a few editions due to a total lack of interest from the public.
Under commercial aspects sosaku hanga was a failure before world war II. Nobody was interested in these prints. Therefore the editions of sosaku hanga produced before world war II were very small. Most of the artists were poor as church mice, and had to make a living with another occupation like for instance Sumio Kawakami who worked as a teacher for English.
It was again the American occupation force in Japan after 1945 that brought a breakthrough for sosaku hanga. The Americans were used to modern art and the sosaku hanga style appealed to a small intellectual elite. An American, member of the occupation force, deserved himself great merits in the promotion of sosaku hanga. It was Oliver Statler. He wrote a classical book "Modern Japanese Prints: An Art Reborn". Oliver Statler was one of the initiators of the annual CWAJ (College Women of Japan) print shows, today one of the most important print exhibitions in Japan.
Some of the better known artists of the sosaku hanga movement are:
The end of the sosaku hanga movement is not clearly defined, Some see it in the 1960s, other with the passing away of the "big names" of sosaku hanga artists towards the end of the 20th century. For others sosaku hanga still continues. The idea as such has certainly survived. But the style and the understanding of younger artists is different from the classical masters of sosaku hanga.
Moku Hanga means "woodblock print" - nothing more. It is not really a well-defined art movement. It is more a common name for artists who work in woodblock prints and use Japanese tools, materials and techniques. More or less it can be seen as the continuation of sosaku hanga.
To our knowledge there are no underlying theories, no manifests and no organizational bonds. Moku Hanga is worldwide. Although the majority of the artists are in Japan, there is a huge number of moku hanga printmakers in all parts of the world who create woodblock prints "the Japanese way". Those who do, do it usually for more practical than philosophical reasons. Matt Brown, a moku hanga printmaker from New Hampshire, U.S.A. put it into the following words:
"All of this is not because I am enamored of things Japanese (I have been to Japan only in my dreams) but because these approaches, tools and materials work best for me."
To our knowledge moku hanga artists perform all steps of making a woodblock print themselves. But their reasons are more of practical nature than art-theory based. There are no professional carvers or printers outside Japan who could do the job. And the few specialists that are in Japan are financially not affordable by an average moku hanga artist.
Many of the Western moku hanga artists take advantage of the internet and of computers. They communicate worldwide with each other. The general meeting point is the Baren Forum. And many artists use the internet to sell their art works. For some it is even the only sales platform that they have.
Moku hanga artists usually detest giclee prints. These are prints that were designed with a computer AND are printed on special paper by a computer printer. However to our knowledge quite a few artists use a computer to create the print design. Their preferred software tool is Photoshop™.
The number of printmakers working in moku hanga is huge. Judging from the sales of companies that are specialized in moku hanga tools and materials, there must be several ten thousands. Most of these are presumably amateur artists who live in Japan and who may exhibit at the local highschool gym, but are unknown to a wider public.
There are quite a few moku hanga artists who are well known in Japan. But only few of them are known outside the country. And there are a few Westerners with great international reputation. Many underwent training in Japan, lived in Japan for many years, and some have even chosen Japan as their permanent home, most in the Kyoto area.
And of course, there is a majority of amateur artists whose works are simply not good enough for a professional career. The most exciting category in our view are those professional Japanese artists whose works have never been presented to a public outside Japan. We guess there are a few hundred if not thousands out there whose works stand for high excellence.
The world of moku hanga is like a huge field full of treasures well-hidden and difficult to find. And often it is difficult to convince the Japanese artists to come out of their hiding-places. Many speak only Japanese and have no e-mail address. Only very, very few have a web site. And all of them have one thing in common: a deep suspicion towards foreigners.
This is where we at artelino try to become active and where we have found a new challenge!
Author: Dieter Wanczura
(January 2007, updated October 2009)
Oliver Statler, "Modern Japanese Prints: An Art Reborn", C. Tuttle, Tokyo, 1956, ISBN No. is 0-8048-0406-0.
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