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The art movement called Shin Hanga, meaning new prints, is as much connected with the name of Watanabe Shozaburo as Pop Art with Andy Warhol. But Watanabe was primarily a publisher and not an artist. But most of all he was a business genius.
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As a young man Watanabe worked in an export company that also dealt in prints. Thus he had the chance of learning the export business and getting connections to foreign importers. In 1906 Watanabe established his own company.
Watanabe had never been outside Japan during his whole life. But he had a firm idea what kind of art work could be sold to Europeans and Americans. He practiced what decades later would be taught at business schools as the essence of marketing. Selling does not start after a product comes out of the assembly line or the workshop. Selling has to start before the product is designed - by catering it for what the market really wants.
And in Watanbe's view, the American and European market wanted images of an idealized, exotic Japan - a romantic vision, a Disneyland phantom that had ceased to exist at the end of the Edo period in 1868.
In the beginning Watanbe exported woodblock reproductions of famous and popular prints by artists like Suzuki Harunobu. For the creation of these reproductions, Watanabe commissioned trained artisans.
Watanabe was not content making only reproductions as many others did. He wanted to sell new prints as well. For the realization of this project he needed the collaboration of artists and artisans.
The situation for artists and artisans trained in traditional ukiyo-e style printmaking was not so funny in those days. At the beginning of the 20th century, traditional Japanese woodblock printmaking was a dying art. Those who were still working in this field, made their living more as illustrators for newspapers and by designing kuchi-e - frontispiece illustrations distributed with magazines and novels.
Thus a collaboration of a kind of starving artists and artisans on one side and a clever art export businessman on the other side looked like an excellent win-win situation.
One of the first collaborating artist in Watanabe's circle was Takahashi Hiroaki (1871-1945) - also called Takahashi Shotei - who in 1907 began to make print designs for Watanabe. Takahashi Hiroaki made hundreds of print designs for Watanabe until the end of his life. They were usually small in size and of a narrow but long format and showed beautiful scenes of an imaginative Disneyland Japan. But they were beautiful woodblock prints and sold well in Europe and in Northern America. For Watanabe they were what used to be the T-model for Ford or the Beetle for Volkswagen - nothing that would blow your socks off, but a good, solid and profitable product.
Watanabe could have been satisfied with his successful Beetle model. But he wanted more, he wanted to produce a Benz - he wanted to deal in high-end art prints. He was aware of European limited edition prints and the preference for large sizes in the market segment of expensive Fine Art. And Watanabe was hunting for the right artists to design his Benz product.
He first met an Austrian painter living in Tokyo, Capelari, with whom he made a few prints. Next, Watanabe found Hashiguchi Goyo (1880-1921), probably the greatest Japanese artist of the 20th century if he had not died so soon. Watanabe and Goyo made one print together - and then Goyo said good-bye.
So the head hunt continued - and Watanabe found Ito Shinsui (1888-1972). And he was the right person. Ito Shinsui and Watanabe collaborated for decades.
Later more star artists began to work for Watanabe. Hasui Kawase (1883-1957) joined the ranks in 1918 - exclusively for landscape prints. And Yamamura Toyonari and Natori Shunsen (1886-1960) began making actor prints after the clever Watanabe had spotted a craze for Sharaku actor prints in Europe. And from 1926 on Ohara Koson (1877-1945) supplied Watanabe with bird and flower prints for export. Also Elizabeth Keith (1887-1956) as the most prominent foreigner should be mentioned as a member of Watanabe's circle.
Not all artists could get along with Watanabe's rigid art management and either finished the collaboration like Hashiguchi Goyo or began looking for other publishers allowing them more artistic freedom.
Shiro Kasamatsu was one of these runaways. Until the late 40s he had designed some 50 prints for Watanabe. From the early 1950s he cooperated with Unsodo, a publisher and Watanabe competitor in Kyoto.
The most prominent of the defectors was painter and printmaker Hiroshi Yoshida. He began designing prints for Watanabe in 1920 and made altogether seven designs until the great earthquake in 1923. In 1924 he opened his own workshop making woodblock prints as a freelance artist and employing his own carvers and printers. Hiroshi Yoshida was the only Shin Hanga artist who was successful without a publisher. This was due to three unique factors. First, he had established contacts to business partners in Europe and the USA and had developed a feeling for the market during several travels abroad. And second, he had taught himself how to carve and print. And third, Hiroshi Yoshida was simply a very outstanding artist.
Watanabe even tried himself as an artist. There are two known designs by him. He used the name "Kako" for his artistic experiment. One is titled "Fukuoka Nishi Koen no Yusho" (The sunset glow at West Park in Fukuoka) and is shown on top of this page.
Watanabe certainly became aware that he could not be a good artist and a successful business man at the same time, and his interest in an own artistic career soon faded. But from this experiment he drew enough knowledge to be able to supervise the carving and printing himself very closely.
After the establishment of his export company, Watanabe had to face several big challenges. The first was the Great Kanto earthquake in 1923. The fires in the aftermath of the Kanto earthquake had destroyed his workshop and all the blocks. He literally had to restart from scratch. But he still had his greatest assets, the artists and artisans collaborating with him and the connections to his business partners in Europe and North America. In the beginning he restarted with small stuff - calendars, greeting cards and small prints. But soon his business was back and in full swing.
The second big challenge for Watanabe was a dwindling demand for Japanese prints in his export countries during the late 1930s and of course the difficult time of World War II. The reasons for diminishing orders from overseas markets were the negative image of Japan as a result of its political and military aggression in Asia (China - Nanking massacre of 1937).
Watanabe now had to replace dwindling export orders by sales coming from the domestic market. He organized exhibitions in department stores. This shows the great entrepreneurial skills of Watanabe. He did not hesitate to try new ways in promoting sales. The tradition of exhibiting so-called Fine Art in department stores is alive in Japan until today. In Europe and the U.S. it is still an unthinkable "no-no".
During World War II, printmaking activities were on a very low level. Materials were scarce and people had other concerns than art prints.
After the war, business returned to normality. But many artists of the old crew had deceased or had come into an age when rheumatism or trembling of the hands reminded them that the time for retirement had come. With the death of Watanabe Shozaburo in 1962 the Shin Hanga era had ended, but not the Watanabe business. It has been continued by his son and his grandson. The Watanabe publishing company and gallery can still be visited in Tokyo.
Author: Dieter Wanczura
(June 2002, updated June 2009)
Helen Merritt, "Modern Japanese Woodblock Prints - The early years", published by University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, 1990, ISBN 0-8248-1200-X.
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