Japan’s Onchi Koshiro, Sosaku Hanga & the Post-WWII West

I was initially lured to Art History as a discipline because it allowed me to visually trace the effects of political and social change through art.  Perhaps no other cultural event has such immediate, hard-hitting effects on a society, its people, and visual culture than war.  War can at times be a grand unifier and a grand divider, both within and between cultures.  When landscapes around you are being destroyed, and people murdered in mass–especially during WWII with the advent of nuclear weaponry–the mode of personal expression inevitably changes.  Art became much less about representing objective reality, and much more about personal expression, contemplation and representing the experience of the artist.

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As divided as Japan and the United States of America were during and after WWII, I would argue that their artistic reactions remained largely the same.  Both in Japan’s Sosaku Hanga creative print movement and America’s Abstract Expressionist movement, artists used abstraction to illustrate the world as each side saw it: entirely altered by a devastating war.   Regardless of political allegiances, the desolation of WWII directly affected the people of Japan and the West and elicited similar reactions by artists of the time.

In order to understand the general context of the Sosaku Hanga creative print movement, and assuming that many of you are probably less familiar with terms like “ukiyo-e” and “shin hanga” than terms like “Romanticism” and “Classicism,” let’s go back to the basics.  In order to see Sosaku Hanga as a genuine break from any other Japanese modern movement before it, we must delve a little bit into those previous movements. Specifically, it is necessary to understand the traditional genre of ukiyo-e woodblock prints.

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This image is from the ukiyo-e genre of Japanese woodblock prints and paintings produced between the 17th and 20th centuries.  The subject matter of these prints consisted of landscapes, theater scenes, and the pleasure quarters of Japan, including geishas and kabuki actors.  As you can see from Hiroshige’s View of Mount Fuji from Harajuku, the artist uses a very straightforward style, using clean lines and simple coloring. The prints were a workshop creation, a collaboration between artist, publisher, wood-block carver and printer, even though they are almost always accredited to the artist and publisher only.  The nature of woodblock prints and workshop production allowed these prints to be mass produced, and they were therefore easily affordable to townspeople who weren’t wealthy enough to buy an original painting.

In 1868, Japan became open to imports from the West, including photography, which largely replaced ukiyo-e.  Japanese artists began to experiment with photography and oil painting in lieu of traditional prints, which was part of a widespread cultural interest in foreign ideas.  However, a renewed interest in native culture came in 1889, with the opening of the Tokyo School of Fine Arts, which Onchi would briefly attend.  This school emphasized traditional arts rather than Western arts, therefore giving new life to woodblock prints.

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Two new branches of modern printmaking came about in the early 20th century: shin hanga and Sosaku Hanga. Shin Hanga is often defined as “neo-ukiyo-e.”  This image (left) by Kawase Hasui shows the stylistic similarities between the two genres. Inspired by European Impressionism, shin hanga artists incorporated Western elements such as the effects of light and the expression of individual moods, but focused on strictly traditional themes of landscapes, famous places, beautiful women, and kabuki actors.  The subjects created by Sosaku Hanga artists tended to be broader, but the key difference between the two schools was in their techniques.  While shin hanga maintained workshop production prints, Sosaku Hanga sought to advocate self-drawn, self-carved, self-printed pieces.

In other words, Sosaku Hanga artists advocated for one single artist designing, creating, and printing the piece with no outside assistance.  In this way, the artist becomes the sole creator of art, and therefore each step in the process became a form of artistic expression. Because of this, in many Sosaku Hanga pieces, you can see traces of the artist’s hand and process, which they wanted to emphasize.  While Sosaku Hanga struggled through its early years, failing to gain wide recognition within Japan, one man helped keep the movement alive through the war years and helped it to flourish after WWII: Onchi Koshiro.

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Onchi grew up as the son of a ruggedly conservative member of the Emperor Meiji’s highly formal court.  He studied the Chinese classics, spent long hours over his calligraphy, and learned the art of Noh theater, all traditional scholarly activities.  He enrolled in the Tokyo School of Fine Arts in 1910, and began to study oil painting and sculpture.  However, he soon exhibited a defiant artistic temperament, namely for creative prints, and dropped out after only four months.  Although Onchi was Japanese to the core, he revolted against ukiyo-e and many traditional art forms.  As art critic of the Nippon Times, Elise Grilli, said: “Onchi delighted in flaunting the conventions of Ukiyo-e prints—-all this he threw out the window with a single toss and a hearty laugh.  Now he could breathe again, freed from the claptrap of academic accretions.”  Onchi began experimenting with abstraction soon after he left the academy, which lead to his interest in creative prints.

Sosaku Hanga had been alive before WWII.  Overseas exhibitions in Europe and America during the 1930s succeeded in introducing the movement, but brought about less response than anticipated.  Onchi began to do these creative prints with his own emphasis on abstraction before the war, and tried to keep the slowly developing, Sosaku Hanga movement alive during WWII, as well. However, the movement did not gain widespread popularity until the 1950s with the help of American collectors who were interested in Japanese prints.

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The years surrounding the second world war were a time of great deprivation on all levels for most Japanese, who were engaged in war from the 1931 Japanese invasion of Manchuria until the atomic bombs were dropped in Nagasaki in 1945.  Throughout the everyday struggles of war, Japanese artists faced the additional problem of finding materials. Complicating the matter was the delicate issue of how each artist collaborated with the military machine, either voluntarily or only with extreme reluctance. A total refusal to cooperate meant no supplies and an inability to work. Many artists faced the psychological burden of leading a double life — doing enough government-approved work to get by, while preserving artistic integrity in pieces created privately.

Onchi, as the creative print group’s effective leader for 30 years, nursed its ideals through these dark years and piloted it through the early part of the Occupation.  He used his social standing, wealth, and connections to obtain materials and support many young artists in the movement during this difficult time.  Onchi saw how the war had created hardship not only for painters and print makers, but also for other creative arts such as poets and musicians.  While he had already experimented with abstraction, these hardships of war and their effect on Japanese reality became an important subject for him during the war years, and drove him to explore abstraction even further.

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Impression of a Violinist, Onchi Koshiro, Polychrome impression, 16 x 13”

Onchi had always been deeply interested in music as a form of creative expression, and he based many of his later pieces on musical compositions.  He painted this portrait during the American Occupation of Japan after he attended one of the concerts that had been arranged for Occupation audiences, where one of Japan’s leading violinists, Suwa Nejiko, was convinced to play.  She was a proud person who seldom played in public and had suffered in the war.

Watching her play for an American audience, Onchi later wrote that: “A harsh electric light showed the strain in her face and I saw tragedy there.  Suddenly my eyes were blurred with tears.”

Formally, this portrait leans towards abstraction, although the central figure is still visible.  Onchi successfully depicted the tragic notion of a musician who rarely played in public having been coerced to play for the Occupiers of her nation.

To artists like Onchi, after the war, traditional landscape or portrait subject matter was essentially pointless.  After witnessing and experiencing the death and destruction of WWII, who needed an idealized portrait hanging in their living room?  Everything that they knew before as artists and as human beings had essentially changed, and they wanted their art to reflect that.  This print shows Onchi’s full-blown abstraction.

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Object Number 2, Onchi Koshiro, 1954, Polychrome impression, 22.5 x 17”

He has stripped down his forms to geometrical shapes and imprints of leaves, emphasizing the play of chance and nature in the creation of his artwork.  He also pioneered new techniques and probed the use of new materials.  A print must be made with a “block,” but this definition does not say how the block is to be made.  For his printing blocks Onchi used paper, cardboard, string, a rubber heel, charcoal, textiles, the fins of a fish, leaves, and anything else that caught his imagination.

In this piece, Object Number 2, you can see the impressions of leaves, grains of wood and geometric shapes.  This form of abstraction is not meant to recall a certain subject, place, or time.  It is an invitation to the viewer to contemplate the process of creating this print, and to have their own visceral reactions to it.

This feeling about art radiated in America and Europe, as well.  Like in Japan, the post-war period left the capitals of the West in upheaval with an urgency to economically and physically rebuild and to politically regroup.  During the war, many European artists fled to America, which caused a jolt in post-war American art movements.

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One of these movements, Abstract Expressionism, began in America as a movement that valued spontaneity, personal expression of the artist’s feelings and experiences, and a stripping down of artistic representation to illustrate a different reality.  Such work is characterized by a strong dependence on what appears to be accident and chance, but which is actually usually highly planned.

In this painting, Hans Hofmann like Onchi, stripped his painting down to geometric shapes and arranged the particular colored squares and rectangles as he saw fit.  The gesture and the artist’s hand in the painting are still visible, as we can see brushstrokes in nearly all of the shapes.  Hofmann’s statements about art being an expression of the artist’s soul, as well as other comments he has made about spiritual contact with nature, parallel Onchi’s ideologies about art and the visual elements of his prints.

Onchi frequently said that his roots were in Western modernism, based on the works introduced to him by American artists and by his European and American art collector friends, seeing as Onchi never traveled outside of Japan.

In comparing Onchi’s Object Number 2 with Hofmann’s The Gate, both have a similar emphasis on geometry, the visibility of the artist’s hand and the process behind the painting’s creation, as well as the rejection of conventional subject matter.  For all their similarities, each artist remains true to their background, and accomplishes such a similar effect while still using their own country’s original native medium: prints and oil painting respectively.

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Another American Abstract Expressionist’s words and works parallel those of Onchi Koshiro: Mark Rothko.  Rothko worked up through different stages of abstraction in order to reach his later masterpieces that have become internationally recognized.  Scholar William Seitz asserted: “As Rothko’s art develops it moves continually in the direction of a more pictorial language, endeavoring to make painterly means rather than symbolic representation the bearer of content…He has sought to make area, tone, and color the direct vessels of content.”

Much of this can be seen in his Number 10, 1950. Rothko’s floating shapes request a visceral response from the viewer, just as Onchi’s Object 2 does.  Rothko also worked in abstraction through the war, when no one acknowledged his work as masterful.  He said, “The unfriendliness of society to his activity is difficult for the artist to accept.  Yet this very hostility can act as a lever for true liberation.”  These words absolutely resonate with Onchi’s experience in Japan.  Onchi pushed through the war and the occupation, coming out reaffirmed in his ideas about art and his faith in his own work.

Onchi once said, “Art is not something that can be grasped by the mind, it is understood by the heart.  If one goes back to its origin, painting expresses the heart in color and form, and it must not be limited to the world of reflected forms captured by sight.” In keeping Sosaku Hanga alive for 30 years during and after the war, Onchi saw his work and the work of other artists grow to success in the post-WWII period both in Japan and internationally.  Ultimately, The West and the East were both greatly affected by a devastating war, and both sought to reinvent art to represent their altered realities.

Abstract Expressionism accomplished this end in the West, just as Sosaku Hanga did in Japan.  The art of Onchi Koshiro traces the life of Sosaku Hanga, and shows the importance of the creative print movement to Japan, as well as to the post-WWII West.

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