Okuyama Gihachiro had one thing in common with American pop art artists Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. He worked in commercial arts and in the so-called fine arts at the same time.
The fundamental concept of pop art is not new. The traditional art of Japanese woodblock printing, called ukiyo-e, never knew the distinction between the fine arts and commercial arts and between artists and artisans.
Okuyama Gihachiro had studied art under Kosaka Gajin. In the 1920s he made commercial designs for different companies - posters and advertising labels. In 1931 he established his own advertising company.
In the 1930s and the 1940s the situation for Japanese artists and Western artists working in Japanese style like Elizabeth Keith or Paul Jacoulet became pretty difficult. The United States of America were an important market. With the beginning of the great depression after the crash of the stock markets in 1929, the demands for Japanese prints from overseas dwindled. And when the economic recovery set in, the rising tensions between Japan and the US had completely eroded the North American market for Japanese goods. Western ukiyo-e artists like Elizabeth Keithleft Japan.
The second world war made things even worse. Materials necessary to work got scarce. During the wartime, the sosaku hanga and shin hanga artists organized in Nihon Hanga Hokokai, a wartime organization. The French-Japanese artist Paul Jacoulet, who had remained in Japan, moved to the countryside and survived by cultivating vegetables and raising poultry which he sold on the black market.
After the end of World War II the situation normalized rapidly for artists in Japan. The economy recovered and many American soldiers stationed in Japan discovered the charm of Japanese prints or bought them as souvenirs or gifts for their loved ones at home. Paul Jacoulet, instead of selling poultry on the black market, now sold his prints to General Douglas MacArthur, commander of the US Pacific Forces and an avid collector of Japanese art.
Also Okuyama Gihachiro had survived the war. And in 1946 he established a publishing company, Nihon Hanga Kenkyusho - the Japan Print Institute. Gihachiro continued to be involved in the commercial sector and at the same time in creating artistic prints.
After the war, he designed mainly landscape prints. At the end of his life he had created more than 1,000 prints - in sosaku hanga and shin hanga style. After the death of Okuyama Gihachiro, his son Gijin continued the work of his father.
One can distinguish two different styles of prints by Gihachiro Okuyama. One type is made in color and in a pleasing way that can be described as shin hanga style. But you can find an even larger number of designs, usually in black and white or in another two-color combination, that was made in typical sosaku hanga look.
We have no further information why the artist created these two different "print lines". But Tokuriki Tomikichiro did the same, and from him we know the reason. The shin hanga type prints earned the money for a livelihood. But the sosaku hanga were the artist's real passion. It may have been the same for Gihachiro Okuyama.
According to Helen Merritt the artist published more than a 1,000 designs during his lifetime. We at artelino have seen maybe several dozens of different designs over ten years. Also on other internet web sites, I have not seen much more than the few designs that we do already know.
Obviously his woodblock prints are still mostly unknown to the public. Maybe one day the art world will be surprised by more - like for instance woodblock prints made after famous paintings by Dutch painter van Gogh that we had received one day and had never seen before.
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