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Sunday, September 14, 2014

Hasui Kawase

Snow at Kamibashi Bridge, Nikko', 1930, Hasui Kawase,
Hasui Kawase
One of the questions I always ask myself in choosing an artist to highlight, revolves around that artist's relevancy to the "art now" in the title above. Finding outstanding artists of the past and wallowing in art history is easy, but to many, even many artists, quite boring. For that reason, and a few others (for which I'm less comfortable), I seldom get involved in Oriental Art. There's such a sameness to it, almost without regard to the name of the artists or even the century in which they lived. Add to that the fact that, except for a few readers in the Far East, Oriental Art is so foreign as to be nearly unfathomable, and thus irrelevant. The aesthetics, the media, the methods, even the mindsets involved in such art are quite different than any we're familiar with in our Western culture. That's why it was such a stunning shock to come upon the work of the Japanese artists, Hasui Kawase. There was only one word that adequately sums up my reaction--WOW!
Kamibashi Bridge at Nikko, 1953, Hasui  Kawase--same bridge no snow.
Pine beach at Miho Postcard,
1919-20, Hasui Kawase
In all fairness I should mention at this point that Kawase is representative of but a small, yet influential, school or style of Japanese art called shin-hanga (new prints) which evolved in the early 20th-century (1915, actually). Insofar as the centuries of Japanese printmaking are concerned, that's almost the day before yesterday. Work in this movement includes artists such as Hiroshi Yoshida, Kaburagi Kiyokata, and Hashiguchi Goyō. Their work grew out of the printmaking influences of Hiroshige and Katsushika Hokusai dating from the early 1800s. Kawase and others were woodblock artists, and in Kawase's case, his popularity, and indeed, his style grew from the fact he enjoyed a lifelong association with publisher, Shōzaburō Watanabe, who printed postcards (left) and prints for western tourists visiting Japan. Thus, though the content of his work was purely Japanese, centering almost exclusively on tourist venues and picturesque village, his style was style did not seem "foreign" to foreigners.
Fuji-ya Hotel, Hakone, Autumn, 1949, Hasui Kawase.
He also painted the the same scene in the other three seasons. 
Morning at Dotonbori in Osaka (detail),
1921, Hasui Kawase
Hasui Kawase was born in 1883. He died in 1957, though his woodblocks continued to be printed well into the 1960s. In any case, the artist lived though one of the most rapidly changing eras in Japanese history, and this factor can be seen in his work. Around 1920, his paintings in watercolor, centered upon iconic images of Japan's trademark, Mt. Fuji. By 1949, after the war, and a mere thirty years later, he was doing multi-seasonal overviews of a Japanese resort hotel. It should be pointed out that, though Kawase is considered a woodblock artist, most of his work was done in watercolor and he did not necessarily do all the carving involved in creating his prints. It was "farmed out" to other artists. His prints are so numerous he would never have had the time to paint if he'd spent time carving the many blocks of wood (usually six or more) needed for each color print.
Rain at Shinagawa Tokyo, 1931, Hasui Kawase
Nihonbashi Bridge, 1940, Hasui
Kawase. A very un-Japanese Bridge,
Choosing which of his images to display here was something of a challenge as I instantly fell in love with his many winter scenes. He was also quite fond of autumn scenes, coastal vistas, city streets, rain (above), temples, and bridges (top). And what is really strange, there are instances of western-style still-lifes (below), children's dolls, some, several industrial scenes (above, right), and a few western-style bridges as seen in his 1940 Nihonbashi Bridge (right). Even this token diversity is almost unheard of in the fine art of Japanese printmaking. His A Doll (below, left) is especially uncharacteristic of Kawase's work and indicates that perhaps not all of his postcard prints were made for foreign consumption.
Grapes and Apples, 1940, Hasui Kawase
A Doll, 1931, Hasui Kawase
Moreover what makes the vast quantity and variety of Kawase's work all the more remarkable is that a large number of his works were destroyed in the 1923 earthquake that devastated his country (fortunately this catastrophe was early in his career.) The era during which Kawase lived and worked saw incredible changes as an ancient, feudal society quickly evolved into the westernized industrial society desperately in need of natural resources (of which it had few) in order to grow and prosper. This need was the seed for WW II. Similar changes were happening on the Japanese art scene as western influences such as futurism, various avant-garde movements, and proletarian art, ran up against mingei (folk art). Shin-hanga art was also in conflict with Sōsaku-hanga, not so much in terms of style but in philosophy. Sōsaku-hanga demanded that the artist be something of a one-man-band, involved in every step of the printmaking process from initial sketches, through the carving, even the printing of the blocks. Shin-hanga embraced a sort of assembly line approach to print making.

Muroto Peninsula, Tosa, 1927, Hasui Kawase
--more rugged than most Japanese seascapes.
Monkey Rock, 1949, Hasui Kawase.
 According to the Los Angeles
Police, this work has been stolen
Kawase stands apart from earlier Japanese printmakers in that he was alive and well, working in Tokyo as, in effect, an illustrator during what we Americans have come to call the "golden age" of illustration (1890s to 1960). Kawase's publisher, Watanabe Shozaburo, put out over one hundred small prints made in three different sizes, based on designs by Hasui. These prints were primarily sold to tourists or exported for the Western market. Most of these prints date from the 1930's. After the war, Kawase's prints became widely known in the West through American connoisseur Robert O. Muller. In 1956, shortly before his death, Hasui Kawase was named a Living National Treasure in Japan.

Clearing after snow at Yoshida, 1944, Kawase Hasui, one of his few wartime prints.


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