Hasui Kawase was a small short-sighted man. His eye-sight was so poor that he had to go close to an object to recognize details. But this did not prevent him from becoming one of the greatest Japanese printmakers of all times. He had specialized in landscape views.
The images that so many people today admire and for which they sometimes pay several thousand dollars, were not made in a studio. Hasui went to the places and made sketches of what he saw. Thus he travelled a lot. When he came back to Tokyo, he gave his sketches to the carvers and printers of Watanabe Shozaburo's print shop and other publishers.
This page presents 10 selected art prints by Hasui Kawase. Hasui is regarded as the uncontested master of landscape prints of the shin hanga movement. Only Hiroshi Yoshida could keep up with him. However the creations of these two men are quite different. While Hiroshi Yoshida was a real cosmopolitan who made views of famous landmarks in the United States and Europe like the Grand Canyon, the Alps in Switzerland or Venice in Italy, Hasui portrayed exclusively places and landscapes in Japan. And there is yet another difference. Hasui had never carved or printed a woodblock himself but had this job done by professionals employed by his major publisher, Shozaburo Watanabe. Hiroshi Yoshida however was himself a master in carving and printing although most of Yoshida's works were carved and printed by professionals employed by him for at own studio.
Hasui was especially good in snow scenes. Often his snow views show just one or two persons. Typically the faces are not visible but covered by huge Japanese umbrellas. This creates a very special mood for the viewer. Something of loneliness of humans, tranquillity and beauty at the same time.
Hasui's rain scenes are as famous as his snow scenes. The principle of creating moods is the same.
The night scenes are another famous subject for Hasui. They are usually kept in shades of blue mixed with gray colors. In many night scenes the light of the moon or from the windows of houses spreads warm yellow colors and is used for fine renderings and gradation to create light and shadow effects.
Hasui colored his sketches usually in the evening while sitting in an inn and enjoying his dinner and some sake. When he came home from his tours, he went through his sketches with the carver and printer. Watanabe himself made corrections every now and then. As the publisher responsible for the commercial success, he had his own ideas how a print should look like to sell.
Hasui once mentioned that he was often surprised himself about the final woodblock look in comparison to his sketches. According to him the woodblock print often looked better than his sketches, but sometimes he thought it was the other way around.
It is hard to find a Japanese woodblock artist who has not tried to contribute to the numerous designs of the sacred Japanese mountain. Hasui made no exception with a total of 52 themes showing Mount Fuji.
Hasui made few designs which show people. Even his series of views of Toyko do not show large crowds of people as one might expect. One is even tempted to think that he was not good in drawing humans and therefore avoided it. The reason lies more in the way how he sketched and in his bad eyesight. Hasui first made a general sketch at large, and then he went closer to the subject to render the details which he could not see well from a larger distance. Therefore static objects were ideal for him and dynamic, moving objects hard for him to draw in details.
This woodblock print shows an evening scene from Soemoncho district in Osaka. It is from the series, "Collection of Scenic Views of Japan II, Kansai Edition".
Hasui worked as a full-time woodblock designer. His job did not make him rich. But he was proud that he could make a living from the income he received from his art. Hasui was paid a fixed amount per design. And if a special design sold well, the publisher Watanabe paid a part of the additional income to the artists.
Hasui Kawase had lost his home two times during his lifetime. The first time was after the Great Kanto Earthquake when his house became a victim of the fires - just like Watanabe's print shop. And the second time Hasui lost his home in the bombing raids of Tokyo during world war II.
Art critics argue that the artists of the shin hanga movement, and especially Kawase Hasui, show a Japan as people - mainly potential Western buyers - would like to see it, but which has little to do with reality. That is certainly true. But who says that art has to show relaity? Watanabe was a genius in understanding what sold in the market - and mainly outside Japan. And Watanabe was known for his rigid style in directing his "stable" of artists in the right direction.
Among Hasui's total of more than 600 woodblock prints are quite a few that show views of the seaside. Typical for these views is the impression of tranquillity and loneliness. You never see crowded, buzzing harbors, but scenes that look like deserted.
Hasui made quite a number of smaller prints in Koban size and even smaller. They were little know until after the death of Robert O. Muller, a famous collector and dealer who had left a huge collection of mostly shin hanga to the world.
Hasui was trained by the artist Kiyokata Kaburagi. At first this master refused Hasui who was at that time 25 years, as being too old. But Hasui was stubborn and reapplied later and finally he was accepted by Kaburagi.
Hasui created woodblock designs until his death in 1957. Hasui suffered from cancer. His last design Hall of the Golden Hue was made from his death bed. But he could not see the finished print. Watanabe's carver and printer finished it after Hasui's death. It was distributed to the attendees of a memorial service in March 1958. Hasui had passed away on November 27 in 1957.
In 1979 this design was in addition published as a special commemorative edition for the first comprehensive Hasui catalogue by Narazaki, the official biographer appointed by the Ministry of Education in 1952 to document the process of woodblock printmaking when Hasui and Ito Shinsui were each commissioned to create a woodblock print. The work of both men was declared an Intangible Cultural Asset by the Ministry of Education. The commemorative print was published by Mainichi Newspaper.
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"Kawase Hasui, The complete woodblock prints", 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.
Author: Dieter Wanczura