Natori Shunsen was the last ukiyo-e artist making actor portraits in traditional manner and one of the major artists of the Shin Hanga movement. His life took a most tragic end. In 1960 the artist and his wife committed suicide at the grave of their deceased daughter.
Natori Shunsen was born in Tokyo under the given name of Yoshinosuke. He studied traditional Japanese painting - Nihonga - as a student of Kubota Beisen and at the Tokyo School of Fine Arts. After finishing his art training, he could get an employment at a Tokyo newspaper as an illustrator.
In addition to his job as an illustrator, the artist began exhibiting his paintings in Tokyo galleries. In one of these exhibitions, the publisher and Shin Hanga promoter Watanabe Shozaburo discovered the artist Shunsen. Watanabe convinced him to start woodblock printmaking.
Watanabe published several single sheets and several series of actor prints. Shunsen worked also for other publishers, Kato Junji and Kikuchi Yoshimaru. Shunsen's main series are:
Other than actor prints, Shunsen made several bijin-ga - prints of beautiful women.
In 1958 Shunsen's daughter died of pneumonia at the age of only twenty-two. Natori and his wife could not get over the death of their beloved daughter. Two years later they committed suicide by poisoning themselves at their daughter's grave.
The tendency towards committing suicide for reasons not understandable to Western minds, is not only a frequent theme in Kabuki plays, but until today an obvious fact in Japanese life. Japan has the highest suicide rate in the world.
Natori Shunsen prints were produced in small editions of for instance 150 copies for shunsen nigao-e shu and sold by a subscription scheme. This makes Shunsen prints for collectors rare and expensive. Mainly the actor prints from the 1920s are considered among the finest Japanese prints of the twentieth century and are sought after.
Helen Merritt and Nanako Yamada, "Guide to Modern Japanese Woodblock Prints: 1900-1975", published by University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, ISBN 0-8248-1732-X.
Author: Dieter Wanczura