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The old imperial town of Kyoto has a great and long tradition of arts and crafts. However printmaking, as collectors of ukiyo-e know it, has hardly set in before the beginning of the 20th century. Today Kyoto and its rural environment are a flourishing printmaking center.
First Publication: April 2004
Latest Update: April 2013
Until the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the Japanese emperors had resided in Kyoto. They had been without any real power. However they had been well equipped with financial means by the ruling shoguns.
The Imperial court in Kyoto had been like a golden cage. And consequently artisans and artists in Kyoto enjoyed a continuous flux of imperial commissions. An ideal ground to make arts and crafts flourish.
This relationship with the court had shaped the artistic climate in Kyoto. Everything was more conservative than in Tokyo. And the impact of Western art after the end of the Edo era was less noticeable.
Kyoto had not been a center of ukiyo-e printmaking like Tokyo or Osaka until the end of the 19th century. But Kyoto had been important for painting in traditional style and for book printing and illustrations (for which the identical woodblock technique was used).
Kyoto had and still has a very solid infrastructure for training in handicraft and fine arts. Several colleges and art institutions provide both training facilities for students and - last but not least - regular incomes for mature artists who work as art teachers and professors.
Quite a few of the Kyoto artists graduated from more than one of Kyoto's art schools. Tokuriki Tomikichiro is one example. He had first attended the Kyoto School of Arts and Crafts, and later graduated from Kyoto College in 1923 after a three year training.
Some of the early Kyoto print artists were primarily painters, who had also designed prints - mostly in the 1920s and 1930s. Among them are Bakusen Tsuchida, Domoto Insho, Kanpo Yoshikawa or Miki Suizan. As their print output was small - sometimes only a series - their print works are today rare and therefore expensive.
Here is an incomplete list of some Kyoto artists whose main activities or conceptual roots were before world war II.
Tomikichiro Tokuriki (1902-1999) came from a family of artists and artisans who had been active in this field for centuries. Their family home was (and maybe still is - we do not know) near the Imperial Palace.
Tomikichiro contributed tremendously to the development of printmaking in Kyoto. His oeuvre does not belong to just one of the two art movements - shin hanga ("new prints") and sosaku hanga ("creative prints"). He worked in both. As both movements were rather irreconcilable with each other in a nearly religious way, Tomikichiro's position was quite unique.
The artist created during his lifetime hundreds, maybe thousands of pleasing print designs on commission for Kyoto publishers like Uchida and Unsodo. These prints were a result of the traditional Japanese ukiyo-e teamwork. Tomikichiro made the designs, skilled carvers and printers made the rest of the production process. And the publisher took care of the commercial aspect as the hanmoto - the entrepreneur.
But Tomikichiro's heart was with the sosaku hanga movement. Sosaku hanga had adopted the Western concept of what art should be - a creative process of an artist who had to do everything himself - the design, the making of the plate/woodblock and the final printing.
The prints made by the early sosaku hanga artists reflect that concept. They are often technically challenged, look from clumsy to simple, and the style is more Western-like. However sosaku hanga prints are often very charming and attractive - because of their simplicity. And, at least the prints created before world war II, have hardly ever an edition size beyond 50 copies. For a simple reason - nobody wanted to buy them until circa 1950.
For Tomikichiro things were not much different. He made a living with his designs of prints in shin hanga style for the Kyoto publishers. And in his spare time he cut his own woodblocks for his "creative prints" on his old Kyoto estate. There he gave also workshops for young artists in woodblock printmaking - among them several Westerners. Tokuriki even maintained a small tea shop next to the entrance gate of his estate. It is always a good idea for an artist to have a stable income from other sources than his artistic output.
After the war, Tomikichiro had established Matsukyu Company for the publication of prints. In 1948 he founded a subsidiary, Koryokusha together with Eiichi Kotozuka, Tobei Kamei and Tasaburo Takahashi for the commercial promotion of sosaku hanga.
The print market changed drastically with the American occupation forces after 1945. The Americans discovered the charm of Japanese culture and arts. They bought shin hanga and sosaku hanga in quantities. And among them were guys like Oliver Statler, who developed a passionate relationship with modern Japanese printmaking and promoted the art with books and other activities.
And one US soldier even returned to Japan to become a printmaker himself - Clifton Karhu (born 1927). He lives most of the time in Kyoto and has become one of the most successful of the contemporary Japanese printmakers. Karhu takes his subjects mainly from the ancient quarters in Kyoto - old houses and scenic views. Some say that Clifton Karhu "beat" the Japanese in their old field.
Clifton Karhu's success inspired other artists - Japanese and Westerners - to work in traditional Japanese woodblock technique and with traditional Japanese subjects.
The following artists were either born after world war II or their major activity was/is after 1945. This is no complete list. These are simply the artists of whom we know that they are centered in and around Kyoto and of whom we have been lucky to have seen prints among the consignments we receive.
Today Kyoto is an area where many of the contemporary Japanese artists come from or where they settled. The historic quarters and the richness of ancient monuments plus the beauty of the countryside attract not only the tourists, but young artists as well.
And last but not least, the old publishing companies like Uchida or Unsodo are still active in Kyoto - also in the support and promotion of contemporary printmaking artists.
Printmaking continues to be very much alive in and around Kyoto.
Author: Dieter Wanczura
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