Scenes from the Bible - that is the kind of subject you would expect the very least on a Japanese print, at least not made by a famous printmaker who was born in Japan. When you see such an artwork, chances are high that you are standing in front of a stencil print made by Sadao Watanabe, one of Japan's most successful artists of the second half of the 20th century.
Japan was a Buddhist country when around 1543 Portuguese missionaries landed on Kyushu Island in Southern Japan. They brought firearms with them and the zeal to evangelize Japan. In the beginning the Jesuits had been quite successful in spreading the Christian religion in Japan, mainly among the lower classes.
The early success of the Christian missionaries had been the result of political circumstances favorable to them in a country torn by raging civil wars. For more than a century several regional warlords had tried to achieve military and political supremacy in Japan. Oda Nobunaga, the leading warlord and the first of the three pacifiers and unifiers of Japan, was opposed to Buddhism.
The powerful and martial Buddhist sects in their cloister strongholds were a permanent threat for him. Oda Nobunaga embraced the new weapon technology of the European foreigners and supported the Jesuits as a counterbalance against Buddhism.
Under his followers Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Iyeasu, Christianity was banned and its followers were persecuted with harsh to cruel methods until the nearly complete extinction of the Christian religion in Japan. Today only 1% of the Japanese population belong to a Christian denomination.
So much about the history of Christianity in Japan. But now back to our artist.
The story goes that Watanabe was influenced by his school teacher to become a Christian. He was baptized in 1930. As a youngster he had become severely ill with tuberculosis, a disease that could easily lead to death in those days. Young Sadao vowed to study the Bible and spread the Christian story through artwork if he should ever recover. The young guy did recover and he did tell the story of the Bible in many, many stencil prints.
Sadao's art prints look like a combination of modern Western art, Japanese folk art and old Buddhist painting. And this is what they actually are. Watanabe had learned over many years as an apprentice the technique of traditional stencil dying as used for kimonos in Okinawa, called katazome.
Later the young man studied under Serizawa Keisuke (1895-1984) and under Yanagi Soetsu (1891-1961). Yanagi Soetsu was a leading member of the Japanese folk art movement, founded by Yamamoto Kanae in the late 1920s and 1930s.
The Japanese folk art movement had been influenced by the political changes in Russia and the theory of socialism. It was looked at suspiciously by official Japanese authorities and never gained any broad public momentum. But it has influenced modern Japanese art considerably.
Watanabe had learned from Serizawa Keisuke the old, traditional technique of Japanese stencil printing, called kappazuri. This method was originally limited to cloth dyeing. Serizawa Keisuke had adapted it to be used with rice paper to produce art prints.
Sadao's prints look very distinctive. He developed his very own style that can be recognized immediately. At first sight the designs look naive. But they are not really, and you will recognize it when you go deeper and look at his works a bit closer.
Watanabe understood how to express messages in his stencil prints. And the message is the story of the Bible. He narrates it in simple images that are never obtrusive and never try to provoke. The designs are not emotional and are not in danger of becoming caricatures - in spite of the simple "brush strokes".
There are a few repeating characteristics in the way the artist drew his biblical scenes - like the eyes for instance, which often look like huge eye-covers. Another typical "feature" is the transformation of the biblical scene into a Japanese environment. For instance, for one of the best known designs, "The Last Supper" Watanabe shows Jesus and his followers sitting on the floor as Japanese people do and eat Japanese food.
It would be too much to mention all exhibition events and awards that Sadao Watanabe had received. Here are just a few from his early career.
Art prints by Sadao Watanabe are in the possession of all major museums, the Vatican and the White House. Lynden B. Johnson liked his art works.
Prints by Sadao Watanabe tend to be expensive if signed and numbered and from limited editions. A price tag with a four-digit number in USD for a medium to large-sized print is normal. There are limited (numbered) and open editions. Limited edition sizes are usually from 50 to 100 copies.
Also later impressions with stamped signatures do exist. They are original, well-done prints. And they should be considerably cheaper than a print hand-signed by the artist. But be cautious. Just as with prints by Toshi Yoshida, the stamped signatures are so well done that it is difficult to recognize them from the hand-signed ones.
Most Sadao Watanabe stencils are printed on a wrinkled, thin Japanese paper, called momi-gami. The signature is often applied in white ink. A conventional pencil signature would not be well visible on the colored background of the paper.
Author: Dieter Wanczura