"Although Hasui is not well known in Japan, he is famous abroad. Hokusai, Hiroshige and Hasui are the three greatest woodblock print artists of Japan ..." (Narazaki Muneshige in the 1950s)
Kawase Hasui is one the great masters of the Shin Hanga movement. Shortly before his death, his art work was declared a Living National Treasure by the Japanese government.
First Publication: November 2001
Latest Update: July 2013
Hasui was born with the given name Bunjiro in Tokyo as the son of a merchant family. As a child Hasui learned to paint in Western style. His first teacher was Saburosuke Okada who taught him watercolor and oil painting.
His family was not very happy about his art ambitions and blocked him in manyfold ways. They wanted Hasui to work in the family business. The conflict was solved when his sister married a shop employee and took over the business.
At the age of 26 Kawase tried to be accepted as a student by Kiyokata Kaburagi, a painter in traditional Japanese style. But Kaburagi considered him to be too old and rejected him. Kawase tried it again two years later and was finally accepted. Kiyokata soon recognized the talents of his student and introduced him to Watanabe Shozaburo.
Kawase had a tight and lifelong cooperation with the publisher Watanabe Shozaburo. Watanabe was the initiator and driving commercial force of the shin hanga movement. When traditional ukiyo-e printmaking was close to extinction, he gathered a handful of starving artists around him and gave them commissions for prints. Watanabe's business idea was to target these prints at art lovers.
Before, ukiyo-e was a kind of mass consumer product. In this function it had no chance against photography and by the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth century it seemed to be doomed to disappear.
The artist had created more than a hundred woodblock prints between 1918 and 1923 - all published by Watanabe Shozaburo. Most of these "new style" prints were exported - mainly to the United States.
Then something terrible happened. On September 1, 1923, Japan was hit by one of the worst earthquakes in history. About 140,000 people died in the Kanto earthquake and as a result of the fires that raged for days. The center of the earthquake was in the Tokyo and Yokohama area.
Watanabe's print shop was destroyed by the fire and with it all of Kawase's print blocks. Also the home of the artist and with it his sketchbooks were destroyed. Kawase and Watanabe had to start again from scratch.
The artist produced more than 400 woodblock designs for Watanabe until his death in 1957.
Kawase was the master of landscape prints. Famous are his night scene prints and the designs showing snow fall or rain. Like no other artist he was capable of creating moods with his designs.
The artist's landscape prints hardly ever show people. Instead, a deserted street creates peaceful, but also strange and eerie feelings.
Hasui did not create his prints in his home. The source were Hasui's sketches that he made on the spot. The artist spent a large part of his life traveling for only one purpose: to catch the scenic views "live".
Back in his inn, he added color to the sketches. This was the source material that the woodblock carvers and the printers received when Hasui was back in Tokyo.
Hasui's working style is an additional explanation why his designs show rarely people. They were hard to sketch as they were not static.
Hasui was involved during the whole production process of cutting the blocks (one for each color plus a key block for the outlines). But the final product was the result of the teamwork of him, the carver, the printer and last but not least of the publisher.
One can assume that especially Watanabe had rather distinctive ideas what a shin hanga should look like to sell well. Hasui himself commented that some of the prints looked better and some worse than his original sketches.
Hasui was a small, short-sighted man. He had to wear thick eye-glasses. In order to sketch details he was forced to go close to an object. His life on the road was expensive. The artist never became rich, but he could make a living as a full-time printmaker.
He had lost his home twice. First by the 1923 earthquake and then again by the air bombardments of Tokyo during world war II.
Hasui was described as a conservative, more retrograde personality. He preferred the kimono to a western suit and liked Japanese sake.
In 1956 Kawase was named a Living National Treasure by the Japanese government. It is the greatest honor an artist can experience in post-war Japan and he was the first to receive this outstanding title. He died only one year after this great honor at the age of 74.
At the end of his life he had created more than 600 prints - landscapes and town views. His last print, "Hall of the golden hue, Hiraizumi" was finished in 1957, the year of his death. Hasui was suffering from cancer and had supervised the early process of production from his hospital bed.
But he was no longer able to see the final print. Watanabe distributed it to friends and acquaintances of the artist at the occasion of a memorial service for the deceased master of Japanese woodblock printmaking on March 6, 1958.
Kawase Hasui prints are in high demand among collectors. Prices range from several hundred to a few thousand dollars for prints from the pre-earthquake era. Apart from condition, which is always a paramount value factor, the price depends heavily on when the copy was printed. One can distinguish basically five edition periods:
The evaluation when a print was "pulled" is not a precise science, requires a lot of knowledge and experience and can often be made only with a rough "circa" dating. Heisei editions are easily recognizable by a special stamp.
If you want to learn more about Kawase Hasui, we recommend the book "Visions of Japan", published by Hotei/Kit Publishers. Some of the information published on this page was taken from an article in this book by Kendall H. Brown titled "Poet of place: the life and art of Kawase Hasui". For a book review see Visions of Japan.
For art professionals and serious collectors of Hasui Kawase prints, there is a reference book available in two volumes with the copmplete works of the artist.
Kendall H. Brown with an essay by Watanabe Shoichiro. General Editor: Amy Reigle Newland. Catalogue Contributors: Inge Klompmakers, Merel Molenaar, Amy Reigle Newland, Okura Haruko, Dick N.W. Raatgever, Robert Schaap and Chris Uhlenbeck. ISBN: 90 74822 46 0, 592 pp., 617 colour & 131 b/w illustrations, published by Brill in 2003.
A few years ago we published a video with a short introduction to Hasui Kawase.
A nice colors slide from Youtube that shows some Hasui Kawase prints aand photographs. If it only was not accompnaied by this nerve-wrecking 'dooing-dooing' music. But others may like it.
Enjoy a few more examples of beautiful Hasui woodblock prints. You find them with detailed descriptions and hammered prices in our archive of sold Japanese prints.
Author: Dieter Wanczura
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