Nature, Dreams & Fantasy: Modern Japanese Creative Prints of the Postwar Period

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    Flowers, Birds by Hatsuyama Shigeru, 1953Color woodblock print, gift of James A. Michener

April 02, 2009 - May 31, 2009
The Robert F. Lange Foundation Gallery (21)

Exhibition Overview

Early in the summer of 1959, James A. Michener visited Tokyo on business. He had just heard that his latest novel, Hawaii, was headed for the top of the New York Times bestseller list. Michener had already begun to collect modern Japanese prints—Sosaku Hanga (“Creative Prints”)—but during this pivotal summer he entered a gallery in Tokyo’s Ginza district and was dazzled by the works. Feeling financially flush, Michener, who as a writer understood the challenges unknown artists face, also was sympathetic to struggling woodblock print artists. At that moment he decided to collect modern prints in earnest, acting almost as a patron. 

On view are approximately 20 prints created during the postwar period. Japanese who bore psychological scars from the effects of the war were drawn to their fantastic, dream-like atmosphere. The prints also appealed to the many American military officers who lived in Japan during the Occupation, as well as to later tourists who acquired these dynamic prints that epitomized a new Japan.

The ideology behind Sosaku Hanga is “self-carving and self-printing,” as opposed to ukiyo-e prints (the traditional Japanese woodblock prints of the 17th to mid-19th centuries), which were collaborations by publishers, designers, carvers and printers.

Onchi Kōshirō (1891-1955) was the leader of the modern print movement, as well as a prominent abstract artist. In fact, the concept of “self-carving and self-printing” was derived from the modern Western idea of individual expression. Many modern Japanese artists strove for a new way to express their personal artistic vision through woodblock prints. By the 1930s, abstract art had become a major style in Japan. Although at first glance the abstract expressionism of Euro-American art seemed new to Japan, both self-expression and attempts to capture the essence of an object had been part of the Japanese art tradition since the Muromachi period, visible in ink paintings by such artists as Tōyō Sesshū (1420-1506).

During World War II (1939 -1945), many artists refused to make images of war propaganda. Instead, they continued making prints depicting subjects far removed from the social and political turbulence of the time—as can be seen in works by Hatsuyama Shigeru (1897-1973), who was best known for his illustrations accompanying children’s literature. According to Oliver Statler, “Most of his prints fall into a realm of elfin fantasy created in delicate line and color…He (Hatsuyama) particularly likes to interpret humans in terms of plants and animals and vice versa, as in Flowers, Birds.”  

Hatsuyama said, “People who as children loved my illustrations, buy my prints out of loyalty. They may be moved by nostalgia, too, nostalgia for the happy days of their childhood, when a touch of fantasy was all that was needed to create a bright new world where there was always a happy ending.”    

Conservation of some of the prints in this exhibition has been made possible by the Robert F. Lange Foundation, which has supported the conservation and digitization of the museum’s Japanese art collection since 1992.