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Museum Monday: Prints by modern Japanese artists in the Wright

November 11, 2016
By Rachel Smith

In addition to owning about 100 “Floating World prints” by such well-known designers as Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) and Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), the Wright Museum of Art possesses a collection of Japanese prints in a modern style.  

 The “Creative Prints,” or Sōsaku hanga, movement formed in 1940s-1950s Japan from a desire among printmakers to fully express themselves artistically and control every aspect of the printing process. Prior to this, a majority of woodblock prints produced in Japan came from a collaborative process. Artists such as Hiroshige or Hokusai associated with the Floating World, or ukiyo-e, genre solely created the designs for prints, while other artisans carved out or printed the woodblocks. Onchi Kōshirō (1891-1955), the founder of the Creative Prints movement, urged his many students to seize control of the printing process: to make their own designs, carve their own blocks, and print their designs themselves. This control ensured that the artist’s total artistic vision would be evident in their final products.  

 While artist Yamaguchi Gen (1896-1976) studied under Onchi, his teacher encouraged him to use unconventional materials, including organic and inorganic objects, in his abstract designs. The uneven application of colored ink in Deep Attachment (1957, WMA 1959.7.1) shows traces of Yamaguchi’s hand rather than a perfect, mechanical process. The faintness of the colors and the resemblance of the large black and grey figure to a bird in flight give a sense of weightlessness and restlessness, contradictory to the print’s title.   


Another artist represented in the Wright’s collection, Hiratsuka Un’ichi, (1895-1997), helped found the Creative Prints movement with Onchi and mentored many students. Hiratsuka grew up in a family of shrine and house architects and carpenters, and he was exposed to religion and working with wood from a young age. Yun Kang Cave Temple (1957, WMA 2010.4.1) portrays the Yungang Caves filled with fifth-century CE carvings of Buddhist deities in Datong, China. Although Hiratsuka’s style was more representational than some other members of the Creative Prints School, his use of jagged outlines and small incision marks draw attention to the grainy quality of the woodblock he used.      Other Creative Prints artists, notably Kinoshita Tomio (1923-2014), emphasized and used the texture of woodblocks to their advantage. The symmetric lines of the woodgrain in Kinoshita’s Faces #3 (1961, WMA 1965.11.2) form the eyes, mouth, and nose of the two figures. The forms were present in the wood, but it was Kinoshita’s skill and carving that transformed it into art.