The biography of Azechi Umetaro reads like the script for a sentimental movie that the spectator will leave with teary eyes. Azechi's life was definitely out of the normal. It had a bad start, but a good end.
The life of Azechi Umetaro began with two major drawbacks for someone who wants to become an artist. He was born in the wrong place and he had the wrong parents. His birthplace was Uwajima in Ehime prefecture on the island of Shikoku - far away from the major cities. And his parents were poor farmers.
Anyway, Umetaro wanted to become an artist and often people in the underdog position have the ability to deploy incredible energies when they want to reach a goal. Azechi Umetaro was one of them. He bought a course by correspondence in art lessons from Tokyo. In 1920 he went to Tokyo, got a job delivering newspapers and continued the art course by correspondence.
When the great earthquake of 1923 hit Tokyo, Azechi was glad to return to Uwajima to his parents' home. But two years later he returned to Tokyo feeling that he could not fulfill his dream of becoming an artist in the province. He got a new job in a government printing company.
The company had tools and materials for printing and Azechi started tinkering with engraving plates without ever having had any training with this equipment.
By chance Azechi had met the sister of Kiyochika Kobayashi and she had told him to visit her brother's house in Tokyo. The encounter was a very unpleasant one with an arrogant Kobayashi. Azechi later remembered:
"That was the last time I called on Kobayashi."
Behind each cloud is a silver line - as the old saying goes. One evening Azechi passed the house of Unichi Hiratsuka and rang the bell with a few of his print works under his arms. Unichi Hiratsuka turned out to be a friendly man and supported Azechi. Knowing Hiratsuka, Azechi got access to art exhibitions and met other artists - Koshiro Onchi and Maekawa Senpan.
Umetaro quit his job at the government printing office to become a freelance artist. But he became more of a starving artist who often did not have enough money for food. During these years he received some support by Hiratsuka, who was an established artist but not a rich man.
Things became better after the end of the Pacific war. Azechi's works were strongly influenced by his mentor and master Hiratsuka. But by the late 1940s he had developed his own style and his favorite landmark subjects - designs of mountain scenes and mountaineers in simplified forms of large flat areas. The artist had become an avid mountaineer and earned his living both from his prints and as an author of books about mountaineering.
Azechi took part in all three print biennales in Sao Paulo, Lugano and Tokyo. He had finally become a successful artist. The dream of the poor newspaper distributor had turned into reality. But he remained a modest man without any attitudes - devoting his life to making prints and going into the mountains with his comrades, who by the way, did not appreciate his prints at all.
But others do. Today his prints are to be found in major museum collections like the Achenbach Foundation in San Francisco, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts or The British Museum in London.
Azechi Umetaro died in 1999 at the age of 97. His great mentor and supporter Unichi Hiratsuka had died two years before him in 1997 at age 102. Helen Merritt reports in her book Modern Japanese Woodblock Prints - The Early Years, that Umetaro could still climb up a steep hill in his eighties leaving much younger guys behind him gasping for breath.
What a story - the life of Azechi Umetaro!
Author: Dieter Wanczura