The traditional Japanese woodblock print was the result of a cooperation of several persons with very different skills - the artist, the block carver, the printer and the publisher. The sosaku hanga ("creative prints") art movement was formally established with the formation of the Japanese Creative Print Society in 1918.
It followed Western ideals in believing that the artist should be involved actively and in person in the printmaking process from the design to the finished product.
I made this litte video a few years ago.
At the beginning of the twentieth century the tradition of Japanese woodblock printmaking was in crisis. Until the end of the nineteenth century Japanese woodblock printmaking was seen as commercial art.
Woodblock printmakers got their commissions from kabuki theaters, restaurant owners and from newspaper and book publishers. The main purpose of traditional printmaking was advertising, decoration and illustration.
With the swift modernization of Japan and especially with the use of photography for newspaper illustrations and advertising, the tradition of ukiyo-e had become an endangered species within a few years.
From around 1915 on two new art movements in printmaking came out of the ashes - the shin hanga "new prints") and the sosaku hanga movement.
The shin hanga art movement was basically a modernization of the traditional Japanese printmaking - cautiously adding some Western elements like the effect of light and Western perspective. Shin hanga used the same subjects as before - beautiful women, actor portraits and landscapes.
Shin hanga artists tried to transform what used to have been a cheap commercial product for the masses to an expensive product of art for a few collectors and art enthusiasts.
The funny thing was that shin hanga sold well - but not in Japan. The prints were exported mainly to North America. And the Japanese artists undoubtedly targeted the taste of the export market by using pleasing, "typical" Japanese subjects and soft colors.
The sosaku hanga prints were a product of the westernization of Japan which had set in with the Meiji period (1868-1912). Japan had called for Western scientists, scholars and artists. Many taught at Japanese universities. And Japanese students had been sent abroad with state scholarships on official missions to study Western methods - also in the field of arts.
The sosaku hanga movement had adopted the concept of the Western ideal of art as the product of the creativity of a genius - the artist. Creative prints versus artisan prints!
The subjects and looks of sosaku hanga followed modern Western trends in art with a few exceptions like Sekino Junichiro.
Here are some names of sosaku hanga artists. By the way, the list looks like the answer to the secret of a long life.
While shin hanga became quite successful, the sosaku hanga art movement had a hard time to gain public popularity. Every ukiyo-e newbie collector is familiar with the names of shin hanga artists like Hasui Kawase, Hiroshi Yoshida, Toshi Yoshida, Ohara Koson, Natori Shunsen or Ito Shinsui. But few are familiar with sosaku hanga artists. This does not mean that sosaku hanga prints are cheap and easily available. Collecting sosaku hanga prints is a small but fine and often expensive market niche. The reason are the usually small edition sizes of sosaku hanga versus shin hanga.
The situation is best characterized by the artist Tomikichiro Tokuriki. He was a passionate sosaku hanga artist. But he made his living with shin hanga style prints, which he contemptuously called publisher artisan prints. He once said in an interview:
"I'd rather do nothing but creative prints, but after all, I sell maybe ten of them against two hundred for a publisher-artisan print."
Author: Dieter Wanczura