Kiyoshi Saito was one of the first artists of the Japanese sosaku hanga movement whose art became successful and was widely accepted and awarded by an international audience. Today he is regarded as one of the great masters of modern Japanese printmaking after the end of the war in 1945.
Kiyoshi Saito was born in 1907 in a small village named Bange in the Kawanuma District of Fukushima prefecture in the northern part of Honshu, the main Japanese island. When he was five years old, his father lost his business in Fukushima and the family moved further north to the island of Hokkaido, where his father worked in the coal mines in Otaru.
When Kiyoshi Saito was thirteen years old, his mother died and he was sent away to become the guardian of a buddhist temple. He tried to escape but failed. Nevertheless the priests allowed him to return home.
Saito then went to Hokkaido, where he took on a sign painting apprenticeship. At that time he dreamed of becoming a painter and he began to sketch gypsum casts at night.
He founded his first sign painting business before his twentieth birthday and ensured himself a living and modest financial success. He reluctantly abandoned it, however, to study art in Tokyo. For the time being he was content with studying illustrations in western newspapers.
In 1932 Kiyoshi Saito moved to Tokyo. He first worked as a sign painter and then later from 1944 until 1954 as an employee of the Asahi Newspaper Company. The job however was a secondary matter. More importantly, Saito came into close contact with Shiko Munakata.
Kiyoshi Saito continued to paint with oil and taught himself the technqiues of woodblock printing. In 1937 he presented both types of work for the first time in the famous Kokugakai Exhibition and was highly motivated. When he met Ono Tadashige at the Ginza Exhibition in 1939.
The acquaintance with Koshiro Onchi, artist himself and mentor of the sosaku hanga movement, soon opened doors to famous galleries, where most notably American purchasers took an interest in Saito's work.
Kiyoshi Saito emerged as Japan's most productive woodblock print artist, whose editions soon found worldwide markets. Sosaku Hanga artists were, however, first dismissed in the Japanese art world and their works were considered concessions to American tastes.
This abruptly changed however in 1951 at the first Sao Paulo Art Biennial, when a panel of judges gave prizes not to distinguished artists for oil paintings and sculptures but rather to two Hanga artists: for the etchings of Tetsuro Komai as well as to Kiyoshi Saito for a woodblock print. The Japanese art world was shocked.
Saito's work was henceforth displayed in important exhibitions and purchased for renowned collections. Saito was also often sought after as an illustrator for newspapers or as a commercial graphic designer.
This new recognition and increased demand for his work brought Saito wealth and enabled him and his family to purchase their own home in 1970 in Kamakura on the outskirts of Tokyo, and another in 1987 in his homeland Fukushima.
Kiyoshi Saito developed a technique and style of creating woodblock prints with a reduced color palette and simplified forms. Instead of elaborate carving and color refinement, he worked a lot with the grain pattern of the woodblock.
Overall, this special technique allowed Kiyoshi Saito to produce new print designs at a fast rate.
Saito's work captures people with its compositional clarity and artistic simplicity. The bold abstraction and spontaneous design give his work a special quality. Motifs include everything from landscapes, portraits, and still lifes to animals and plants of all sorts.
Author: Dieter Wanczura