A review of ‘Scenes of Last Tokyo – Japanese Creative Prints from 1945’
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, UK, 2 Feb – 5 June 2016, gallery 29, admission free
Anyone interested in printmaking and/or Japanese modern culture may want to see this small exhibition before it closes in early June. It’s well worth the journey and the time. This review is based on my visit in late April.
The exhibition consists of a display of fifteen woodblock relief prints made by nine Japanese artist-printmakers and published as a set in December 1945, soon after the end of World War II. The prints were made and published as a deeply nostalgic and sad gesture, recording famous sites in Tokyo that were extensively damaged or entirely lost in the incendiary air raids on the city during 1945. The publisher, Uemura Masurō, presented the set of prints with an English title, Scenes of Last Tokyo – Fifteen Scenes of Last Tokyo in Original Woodcut.
The printmakers were members of the Sōsaku Hanga movement. In a British context, we remain unfamiliar with this important development in modern Japanese printmaking, as publications and exhibitions tend to be relentlessly focussed on the ukiyo-e prints that were produced mainly during the Edo period (1600-1868). Ukiyo-e prints were produced in a commercial, publisher-led collaboration with an artist, carver and printer, intended for mass-circulation to an urban middle class. Their production was defunct by the late 19th century.
In a very different cultural-political world from that in which ukiyo-e art had flourished, two new printmaking movements developed in the early years of the 20th century. The Shin Hanga (New or Revival Prints) movement was based on a return to the older collaborative mode of production, and sought to meet the demands of Japanese and Western markets for refined, highly crafted prints of contemporary, mainly romantic and picturesque subject matter.
The more radical Sōsaku Hanga (Creative Prints) movement embraced the modernist Western aesthetic of the artist as an independent creative agent. Sōsaku hanga printmakers were often artists who had already trained as oil painters in a Western, quasi-modernist manner, yet who also felt a need to retain contact with their native traditions, including a sensibility based on traditional tools and media, especially the use of washi (handmade Japanese papers). For this writer, the arising paradoxes and poignancies are part of the interest of this movement.
On the one hand, and on the model of the modern Western artist-printmaker, each sōsaku hanga printmaker was usually responsible for the whole printmaking process, through conception, design, cutting and printing. They were, therefore, free to define their own intentions and methods, while also being more directly exposed to market conditions. On the other hand, they were committed to the materials and methods that they self-consciously inherited from pre-modern Japanese art: the use of washi, sumi (carbon-based ink) and natural, water-based printing colours, and cutting and printing by hand with distinctive Japanese tools.
By 1945, Japanese publishers and artists were using a wide range of contemporary Western printmaking techniques, and Japanese artists were beginning to take an interest in abstract as well as figurative art. In time, both these aspects of modernity were to affect the sōsaku hanga printmakers. However, in late 1945, their Scenes of Last Tokyo seems to catch them at an emotive moment, in the face of national defeat and loss, when the founding characteristics of their movement were clearly defined and were in a state of evident tension with each other. These are the terms in which I want to explore this exhibition.
Gallery 29 is a small space used for temporary displays of East Asian art. The fifteen prints, all c. 24 x 18.5 cm, are presented framed along the gallery walls. There is an introductory panel, which informs us that the print set was donated to the Ashmolean by Christopher Dyment in 2015, a panel that translates the original introductory Japanese text, and each print is accompanied by an informative label. There is no catalogue and (when I was there) no leaflet, no postcards in the museum shop, and a polite but strict interdiction on photography. All this, together with copyright law, has the usual impact on anyone who, like myself, has a substantial interest in such prints, but does not detract from the fundamental value of this rare showing of a whole (and historically important) set of sōsaku hanga prints. It does increase the importance of getting to the exhibition in person, if such work interests you.
The website of the Lavenberg Collection of Japanese Prints is an alternative and important source for reproductions of the whole set of prints (shown as a single image), some individual printmakers and prints, translations of the introductory Japanese text, and for a commentary on the Japanese text and the print set as a whole. In the following text, links to reproductions of individual prints are traced in the endnotes. The contributing printmakers are:
- Onchi Kōshirō (1891-1955): 3 prints
- Hiratsuka Un’ichi (1895-1997): 2 prints
- Yamaguchi Gen (1896-1976): 2 prints
- Kawakami Sumio (1895-1972): 2 prints
- Maeda Masao (1904-74): 1 print
- Saitō Kiyoshi (1907-97): 1 print
- Sekino Jun’ichirō (1914-88): 1 print
- Azechi Umetarō (1902-99): 1 print
- Maekewa Senpan (1888-1960): 1 print
With respect to the use of papers and printing inks, it is not easy to come to firm conclusions when looking at framed prints. But it seems safe to observe that all prints are on lightweight, off-white or light ivory washi, and all are printed with some combination of sumi and water-based colours. In some cases, it is not certain that sumi is used and may be present only as a dilute grey tone. In fact, the use of sumi throughout this set of prints is interesting, as the use of a sumi-printed keyblock, that controls and frames a print’s design, is a distinctive feature of ukiyo-e and shin hanga prints.
Only one print, Sekino’s Benkeibashi (Benkei Bridge), has the feel of an ukiyo-e or shin hanga print, with a finely cut, sumi-printed keyblock that incorporates a frame. Several others make use of a sumi block but none other uses a sumi frame, and, more typically, the ink block is integrated to a greater or lesser extent into the whole image. The master in this respect is, not surprisingly, Hiratsuka. In his Asaka Rikyū (Asaka Palace), the whole image is delicately cut and printed in light colours, except that two iron Western-style lamp posts are printed in black sumi. (Given the cultural inversions involved here, was he being consciously ironic?) In contrast, his Sukiyabashi (Sukiya Bridge) integrates the use of sumi with other colours, to striking graphical and descriptive effect.
All prints make some use of Western geometrical-optical perspective, but in different degrees of precision and in different manners that are hard to summarise. Some works are carefully staged with the aid of perspectival devices; notably Hiratsuka’s Sukiyabashi, and Onchi’s asymmetrical Tōkyō eki (Tokyo Station) – both of which, incidentally, are atmospheric in ways that owe more to Western than East Asian painting. But they do it differently, with Onchi’s print being the more thoroughly Westernised in overall handling and specific feeling.
Some images are structured so that they present the viewer with a frontal, nearly flat scene, although the underlying spatial structure still quietly obeys the rules of perspectival recession. The clearest example is Maeda’s Teidai Akamon (Imperial University Red Gate), in which the gate and its side structures span the width of the image, with a soft foreground recession and packed layers of depth, represented mainly by trees, beyond the gate. Onchi’s Nijubashi (Bridge to the Imperial Palace) gets the best of both worlds (East and West) by organising a view into deep space via several flat steps (like stage designer’s flats); a tree in the foreground partly obscuring the view of the bridge, placed in the middle ground, while the palace itself occupies a small but clearly defined position in the background.
And so on. Much more could be said along similar lines about the way in which these nine artists, in fifteen prints, find diverse solutions to the problem of combining Western and Japanese pictorial conventions within works produced in Japanese technical terms. It is worth saying that, in their use of Western pictorial (painterly) conventions all these artists except one seem to be drawing on a knowledge and understanding of an essentially French realist modernism, as they would have been aware of it at that time in their lives. The exception is Kawakami, whose two prints are more suggestive of French or German expressionism.
Taking the Scenes of Last Tokyo as a whole, there is an evident struggle to find a balance between Japanese subject matter (itself complicated and with its own traditions of serial presentation, especially in the medium of print) and the use of Western pictorial devices and conventions (not only perspective but also clear layering of landscape space, and sky depicted as sky), mediated through the particular possibilities of the woodblock print (use of washi, mainly but not universally soft colours and textures, use of woodgrain, non-realistic colours, simplified forms and other devices derived from the ukiyo-e tradition).
The two artists who managed this balancing trick most deftly were, I feel, Onchi Kōshirō and Hiratsuka Un’ichi, both of whom, especially Onchi, were leading figures within the sōsaku hanga movement. Yamaguchi Gen and Maeda Masao come good seconds yet not with quite the same conviction and clarity as these first two. All nine printmakers are interesting in some respect while the much of the interest of Scenes of Last Tokyo lies in its existence as the result of a collective enterprise, expressive of sōsaku hanga intentions, produced in direct response to a crucial moment in Japanese modern history. If any one print says it all – perhaps more by chance than as an expression of the artist’s intention (it would be nice to know) – then, for me, it is Hiratsuka’s Asaka Rikyū, in which the palace buildings stand quietly in deep recession in the background of the scene, while the Westernising black, iron lamp posts are prominent features of the foreground. This spatial irony then turns in on itself, as the lamp posts are the sole features of the work to be printed in that ‘treasure’ of pre-modern East Asian art, the black ink of sumi.
© Paul Griffiths, 2nd May 2016
 After the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan surrendered in August 1945.
 “During 1945… incendiary raids by American bombers brought death and destruction to [Japan]. By the spring, the B-29 squadrons were large enough to amount attacks in which hundreds of bombers dropped thousands of tons of incendiaries on Japan’s cities, night after night, methodically incinerating them and later returning to destroy surviving target areas.” Totman, Conrad. 2005. A History of Japan (Second edition). Oxford: Blackwell: 447.
 Merritt, Helen and Nanako Yamada. 1995. Guide to Modern Japanese Woodblock Prints: 1900-1975. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press: 216, 277. ‘Last Tokyo’ may be the publisher’s mistranslation of ‘lost Tokyo’ (see note 7).
 This and the following general account of Japanese printmaking is based on Merritt, Helen. 1990. Modern Japanese Woodblock Prints: The Early Years. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.
 There are some good English-language technical accounts of Japanese woodblock printmaking. For the new (smart) kid on the block, see: Vollmer, April. 2015. Japanese Woodblock Print Workshop: A Modern Guide to the Ancient Art of Mokuhanga. Berkeley: Watson-Guptill.
 Merritt & Yamada, ibid.: 277.
 This list gives the artists’ names as they are first encountered on the gallery walls, from the information panel onwards.
 “In colour printing [the keyblock] is the printing matrix having the most work, the outline or the part of the colour separations which pull the whole image together; either printed first or last.” Simmons, Rosemary. 2002. Dictionary of Printmaking Terms. London: A & C Black: 68.
 Neither of his two prints is reproduced individually in the Lavenberg website but they can be seen in combined reproduction on the general page (see note 7), in the first row, third from left, and third row, also third from left. But see also the following two notes.
 Merritt, Helen et al. 2001. Hiratsuka: Modern Master. The Art Institute of Chicago: plate 24.
 Merritt et al. ibid.: plate 25.
 Go to note 7: image at bottom right corner of the combined reproduction.
 Most strikingly in the street scene, Yoru no Ginza (Night at Ginza): http://www.myjapanesehanga.com/home/artists/kawakami-sumio-1895—1972-/night-at-ginza
 Take his Meiji jingu (Meiji Shrine) as an example: http://www.myjapanesehanga.com/home/artists/gen-yamaguchi/meiji-shrine
 see note 15.