Unichi Hiratsuka is one of the founding fathers of the Creative Prints movement (Sosaku Hanga) and one of the big names of twentieth century Japanese art. Unichi Hiratsuka died at the age of 102 years.
Unichi Hiratsuka was born in Matsue in Shimane Prefecture on Honshu Island. His grandfather was an architect and his father a carpenter. This explains the later predilection of the artist for the depiction of buildings, temples and shrines.
Unichi received his his art training from Ishii Hakutei, Okada Saburosuke and Igami Bonkotsu, a master wood carver. The thorough training in wood carving made Hiratsuka an exception among the Sosaku Hanga artists, who often needed years with their self-trained tinkering to learn what a trained carver could have teached them in a few hours (see Maekawa Senpan).
Hiratsuka Unichi's early prints were in color. Subjects were mainly landscapes. Immediately after the great Kanto earthquake in 1923, which had destroyed Tokyo, Hiratsuka began a color series showing the devastations and the reconstruction works - Tokyo shinsai ato fukei.
In contrast to the radical artist Koshiro Onchi, who refused traditional Japanese art completely, Hiratsuka Unichi studied and appreciated early Ukiyo-e and such classical artists like Hiroshige and Hokusai.
Many Hiratsuka prints have little chances of attracting those art aficionados who are focused on color. After his early landscape prints, the artist preferably created prints in black and white. His favorite subjects became Buddhist religious images, temples and shrines, female nudes, buildings and landmark places.
Hiratsuka was very prolific in the number of print designs, but usually produced few copies. There is only one exception. In 1931 Hiratsuka started a print with an image of a Buddhist priest named Nichiren Shonin. It was meant as a kind of religious devotional image and he had planned to produce ten thousand copies.
Hiratsuka wrote about his preference for black prints on white paper:
"Printing in black on white is often considered the first step of technique, but it is actually the final point. One own's handwriting has the accent of dark and light in a single line. A print is constructed from lines and surfaces on a two-dimensional surface and on it should be contained perspective, volume and color."
"By working in black and white I am emphasizing the ink in traditional Japanese painting which should be combined with the expressive methods of the European style. The most beautiful range of color is black and white; Eastern people have inherited a sensitive sense of blood in black and white."
Hiratsuka had a great influence on his contemporary fellow artists and on subsequent artist generations. Among his students was Shiko Munakata, the "Japanese Picasso". Other pupils were Fumio Kitaoka and Okiie Hashimoto. In 1948 he had established his own art school.
In 1962 Unichi Hiratsuka moved to Washington D.C. where one of his daughters lived with her American husband. In Washington he continued to work and exhibit well into his nineties. He took his subjects partly from his new homeland, the United States, and partly from Japan. During this period Hiratsuka created a series of a Hundred Female Nudes.
In 1991 the Hiratsuka Unichi Print Museum was opened in his honor in Suzaka in Nagano Prefecture. He had received the highest awards and medals in Japan. The Japanese Emperor had declared Hiratsuka a Sacred National Treasure.
In 1994, now 99 years old, Hiratsuka Unichi returned to Japan. In 1997 he died at the age of 102. In 1999 the National Museum of American Art had a retrospective exhibition of the artist's works.
Hiratsuka prints are to be found in all major museum collections like the Tokyo Museum of Modern Art, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Rockefeller Foundation in New York or the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.
Author: Dieter Wanczura