Hakutei Ishii played a very important role in the promotion of the Sosaku Hanga art movement. Although he was a well-known painter, he was less successful as a printmaker. His series of Twelve Views of Tokyo was abandoned after nine designs due to a lack of interest from potential buyers.
First Publication: August 2002
Latest Update: June 2013
The chances to become an artist were good for Hakutei as his father was a painter and lithograph. The young guy studied Western painting, went to Europe and later attended the Tokyo School of Fine Arts.
Hakutei Ishii was editor of a small art and literary magazine named Myojo when he met Yamamoto Kanae, a young painter and printmaker, in 1904. Hakutei published a print created by Kanae, titled Fisherman. Art historians consider this publication as a kind of official birth of the Sosaku Hanga art movement. Fisherman was a self-carved and self-printed woodcut in two colors.
The sosaku hanga artists had a kind of religious believe in the complete self-creation of a print - in contrast to the old cooperative teamwork model of Ukiyo-e printmaking. In the traditional ukiyo-e printmaking process the artist made the designs, a highly skilled engraver carved the blocks and a well-trained printer put the final result on paper.
Kanae Yamamoto, Hakutei Ishii and Ishii Tsuruzo founded a new magazine titled Heitan in September 1905. Their inspiration came from such German art magazines like Pan, Simplicissimus and the art nouveau magazine Jugend. And in 1907 Kanae Yamamoto, Hakutei Ishii and some friends founded a new art magazine called Hosun - meaning little thing in Japanese.
The commercial success of these magazines was not the same as the enthusiasm of their founders. Heitan and Hosan disappeared a few years later.
In 1912 Kanae Yamamoto entered a ship that took him to Europe in less than two months. At that time the relationship between Kanae and Hakutei had cooled off for a very private reason. Kanae had fallen in love with Hakutei's younger sister Mitsu. But the Ishii family was against a marriage. Although Hakutei had no objections towards Kanae, he had to follow the family rule.
As part of his art training Hakutei had learned block carving at the printing offices of the Finance Ministry. It was maybe this personal experience and the knowledge about the high skills that woodcut or woodblock carving required that kept Hakutei from becoming a fanatic about the question of self-carving. He knew how technically difficult it was.
From 1910 on, Hakutei Ishii began with the design of a series of Twelve Views of Tokyo - Toyko junikei. the series shows women in traditional kimonos against a plain background with a larger cartouche in the right upper corner with a scene from Tokyo. Hakutei commissioned an experienced engraver, Ingami Bonkotsu (1875-1933) with the carving of the blocks.
The style of the prints is Shin Hanga - the traditional approach of reinvigorating classical ukiyo-e. Hakutei had no mental problem promoting sosaku hanga and making shin hanga prints at the same time. He was no ideologist.
Unfortunately the print series was not too well accepted by the public and did not sell well. Therefore only nine of the originally planned twelve designs were published.
In spite of all the disappointing projects like the magazines or the Twelve Views of Tokyo, Hakutei made his way as a successful and well recognized painter. He exhibited regularly with Shin Bunten and became a member of the Imperial Art Academy. And he had an important influence on other artists. During his career he was a formal and informal teacher for such artists like Unichi Hiratsuka and Kishio Koizumi.
Author: Dieter Wanczura
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