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Sōsaku-hanga Creative Prints Collage

Sōsaku-hanga Creative Prints - History and Concepts

Started: 1904
Ended: 1960s
Sōsaku-hanga Creative Prints Timeline

Beginnings of Sōsaku-hanga Creative Prints

In 1868, the onset of the Mejii Period in Japan brought about new open trade borders with the West, causing a countrywide rush toward modernity that affected all areas of society. Many Western teachers were imported to impart education in science and art in order to elevate Japan as an equal peer with the rest of the world. Many Japanese artists began to shake up what they viewed as the country's staid art traditions by adopting fresh styles and techniques from Western art movements and marrying them with aesthetics that were still decidedly Japanese toward creating a contemporary lexicon.

This caused a large transformation in the printmaking field, which largely consisted of ukiyo-e, an art form that had become noted for cheap reproduction and catering to the masses, disconnected from fine art. Two new strains would emerge.

Also dubbed the "new ukiyo-e," shin-hanga focused primarily on the traditional subjects of ukiyo-e, including kacho-ga, bird and flower prints, bijin-ga, portraits of beautiful women, landscapes of symbolic places in Japan, and kabuki theatre, which had already been well received in the West, launching the 19th century Japonisme movement among artists and designers. At the same time, shin-hanga prints incorporated Western influences, particularly from Impressionism, and were meant to appeal to a Western audience.

Appealing to Western collectors and drawing upon Western influence were shared by both the sōsaku-hanga and shin-hanga movements, but shin-hanga emphasized many reproductions of a single print, and primarily drew upon Western Impressionism, Art Nouveau, and Naturalism to create smoothly finished prints of traditional subjects. In contrast sōsaku-hanga artists favored the avant-garde in both subject matter and technique, argued against reproduction, and created prints that retained the workings of the artistic process.

Yamamoto Kanae

Yamamoto Kanae's <i>Self-Portrait</i> (1915) exemplifies his approach to Yōga, or Western style, painting.

Originally trained as a wood engraver, Yamamoto Kanae began studying Yōga, or Western style painting, at the Tokyo School of Fine Arts in 1902, in part because the influx of Western print technology had made wood engraving an increasingly untenable profession. Studying under Kuroda Seiki, who was considered "the father of modern Japanese western-style painting," he was introduced to a wide range of Western artists and techniques.

In 1904, while still a student, Kanae took a trip to the Chiba Prefecture along the Tone River, where he sketched a fisherman. Returning home he made a woodblock of the sketch, carving one side to be printed in ochre for the broad areas of the image, and the other to be printed in black to create lines and details.

Created by the artist alone, Kanae's Fisherman (1904) was in direct contrast to the popular tradition of shin-hanga, the new woodblock prints of ukiyo-e that had been a collaborative four-step process involving an artist, publisher, woodblock carver, and printer. The resulting print launched the sōsaku-hanga, or creative prints, movement when it was published in Myōjō, a literary and art journal, in 1904. The editor of Myōjō, Hakutei Ishii wrote an accompanying article, calling Fisherman "a revolutionary step" in Japanese art. Ishii would first coin the term sōsaku-hanga in the Bungei hyakka zensho (Encyclopedia of Liberal Arts) (1909).

Sōsaku-hanga sparked new ideas that a work could be driven by an artist's individualism, idealism, and humanism, while still carrying a reverence for traditional Japanese art. It also incorporated an appreciation for Western avant-garde movements and a disregard for reproductive printmaking.

Art curator, Elizabeth Emrich has summarized the difference between the two movements, "While shin-hanga marked both the continuation and transformation of the ukiyo-e tradition during the last years of the Meiji period...the sōsaku-hanga movement, emerging at the same time, drew heavily on Western painting styles within Japan as well as the work of European artists such as Munch, Kandinsky, and Gauguin ... developing new forms of synthesis between modernity and tradition, specifically in the use of Buddhist iconography and calligraphic techniques."

Hakutei Ishii

Hakutei Ishii was also a Yōga painter, who studied with the leaders of the movement, Asai Chū and Kuroda Seiki. Subsequently, he became an active promoter of Western style art in his role as editor of Myōjō (Morning Star) in 1904. With his publication of Kanae's Fisherman, Ishii became a leader of the sōsaku-hanga movement. His close artistic friendship with Kanae led to the two men, along with the artist Tsuruzo Ishii, co-founding Heitan in 1905. The art journal, modeled after European art journals like the Art Nouveau Judgend, published five features of the trio's work along with articles advocating for the new creative possibilities of sōsaku-hanga.

During the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905, there was such a demand for prints that more convenient Western printing technologies were widely adopted, and by 1910 the use of woodblocks for commercial printing in Japan had come to an end. In supporting sōsaku-hanga, Ishii was not so much committed to the movement as primarily interested in promoting the continued viability of Japanese prints, as shown in his later return to shin-hanga with his Toyko junikei (Twelve Views of Tokyo), a series he began in 1910.


This 1912 photograph shows the members of the Shirakaba-ha.

The Shirakaba-ha society, or White Birch Society, played an important role in promoting the individualism of the artist, and in creating an intellectual environment that supported the sōsaku-hanga movement. Created in 1910 by writers, artists, and critics, many of whom had been students at the Gakushin, or Peer's School, in Tokyo, the group included not only noted novelists like Satomi Ton, Takeo Arishima, and Saneatsu Mushanokōji, but the philosopher and later founder of the mingei, or Folk Art movement, Yanagi Sōetsu.

Wanting to counter the naturalism of the previous generation, Shirakaba-ha emphasized positive themes and idealized individualism. As historian Gennifer Weisenfeld noted, "the members...espoused personal cultivation as a legitimate social goal" in all the arts. As shown by their support of the Atarashiki-mura movement, or "New Village," a utopian village where art and ordinary labor were incorporated into daily life, many of them were influenced by the idealized humanism theories of the Russian writer and thinker, Leo Tolstoy.

In 1910 the society launched Shirakaba, or White Birch, which, published until 1923, became the leading journal of the era. The issues combined literary work with art and essays on aesthetics, and played as Weisenfeld wrote, "a major role in introducing and disseminating information about European art." More than eighty works by Paul Cézanne were featured in various issues, as art historian Alicia Volk noted, "More than any artist it was Cézanne who triggered a new way of thinking about art and expression." Japanese artists like the Yōga painter Ryūsei Kishida were associated with the magazine, as shown by his creation of a number of covers for issues from 1918-1922. The artists associated with the journal and the society were particularly influenced by European avant-garde movements and in 1910 began organizing their first exhibition as well as exhibitions of Western art.

Kōtarō Takamura and Natsume Sōseki

Sculptor Kōtarō Takamura and the novelist Natsume Sōseki established the theoretical basis of sōsaku-hanga. Takamura's A Green Sun (1910) emphasized modern artistic freedom, the right to paint the sun green, as he wrote, "I desire absolute freedom of art. Consequently, I recognize the limitless authority of individuality of the artist." Takamura's essay resembled an artistic manifesto, criticizing what he called a "local approach to color," saying, there seem to be some who "think that nature in Japan has a certain inviolable set of colors peculiar to it," and arguing that he'd "like the artist to forget that he's Japanese. I'd like him to rid himself entirely of the idea that he is reproducing nature in Japan. And I'd like him to express on his canvas the tone of nature as he sees it, freely, indulgently, willfully...as Claude Monet did, painting tree leaves sky-blue."

Natsume Sōseki, the novelist described by art historian Kenjiro Okazaki as "the literary giant known to have founded the basis of modern Japanese literature," was deeply interested in art and architecture. His lecture "The Philosophical Basis of the Art of Literature" (1906), which pointed out that an image, apparently before one's eyes, is a composition created by the brain, became an early influence upon the development of Japanese avant-garde art. In his 1912 essay "Bunten and the Creative Arts," he stated that "art begins with the expression of the self and ends with the expression of the self," lending further impetus to sōsaku-hanga concepts of art and individuality. The novelist is still influential today, as evidenced by the creation of an android made to resemble him to give lectures and readings of his works to contemporary audiences in 2016.

Kōshirō Onchi

In 1910 Kōshirō Onchi began studying Yōga painting at the Tokyo School of Fine Arts, where the Western artists Wassily Kandinsky, Edvard Munch, and Paul Cézanne particularly influenced him. However, unhappy with the academic environment, he dropped out after a year and turned to book illustration in 1911, encouraged by Japanese artist and poet Takehisa Yumeiji. Book illustration and design afforded him a livelihood and also informed his interests in poetry, Chinese calligraphy, Western typefaces, and printing techniques.

A 1914 leaflet advertising the publication of <i>Tsukuhae</i> shows the influence of Western symbolism in a <i>sōsaku-hanga</i> print.

In 1913 Kōshirō Onchi became the leading proponent of sōsaku-hanga, lending his innovative artistic vision and theoretical sense to the movement. His first efforts involved inviting his friends and fellow students at the Tokyo School of Fine Arts, Fujimori Shizuo and Tanaka Kyokichi, to launch a magazine. Tsukuhae, or Moonglow, was launched to publish poetry and prints in 1913. The trio dubbed themselves Bishoha no sanin or Three Men of the Smile School, parodying the various societies of the official art world, and advocating for the avant-garde potential of the self-created print.

From September 1914 to November 1915, Tsukuhae published the sōsaku-hanga prints of the three founding artists along with the Symbolist and Imagist poems of Hakusyū Kitahara, Sakutarō Hagiwara, Saisei Murou, and Bochō Yamaura. The artists intended to create works that, like the poems, expressed thought and feeling in powerful but non-representational images.

Though the magazine was short-lived, Onchi actively created and promoted sōsaku-hanga journals and societies throughout his life. In 1918, along with Yamamoto Kanae and others, he founded the Creative Print Association, which promoted the work of sōsaku-hanga artists in the following decades. In 1928 with Un'ichi Hiratsuka, Sumio Kawakami, Suwa Kanenori, Henmi Takashi, Fujimori Shizuo, Maekawa Senpan, and Fukazawa Sakuichi, he launched a print project One Hundred New Views of Tokyo (1928-1932). In 1939 he founded the Ichimoku-kai, or First Thursday Society, which included artists like Gen Yamaguchi and Jun'ichirô Sekino who met once a month at his home. During the war years, the First Thursday Society supported emerging sōsaku-hanga artists, both financially and artistically, and also established connections with noted American print collectors like William Hartnett. As a result, following World War II the movement continued with renewed vigor, publishing various portfolios of prints, including Tokyo kaiko zue (1945) and Nihon jozoku sen (1946).

Sōsaku-hanga Creative Prints: Concepts, Styles, and Trends

Shin-Hanga and the Overlap with Sōsaku-hanga

Goyō Hashiguchi's <i>Woman at Her Bath</i> (1915) exemplified <i>shin-hanga's</i> continuation of <i>ukiyo-e's</i> collaborative process and traditional subject matter. Here, <i>bijin-ga</i>, portraits of beautiful women, is combined with a Western influenced nude.

Shin-hanga, or new prints, began under the leadership of Shōzaburō Watanabe, a publisher who wanted to create what he called a "creative new print," who assembled a group of Japanese artists and artisans to fulfill this goal. Goyō Hashiguchi's Woman at Her Bath (1915), made under Watanabe's direction, was the first acclaimed work of the new movement. The work characterized shin-hanga's combination of a traditional Japanese subject in a smoothly finished print while reflecting the Western influence of a naturalistic nude. Another contemporaneous influence upon the development of the movement was the work of Takahashi Hiroaki whose works like Spring Passage (1936) were to have great commercial appeal. From the 1920s until World War I, shin-hanga prints, often romanticized images of Japan, were much sought after abroad, as seen by major exhibitions of shin-hanga works in America in the 1930s.

Among the most noted shin-hanga artists were Hiroshi Yoshida and Kawase Hasui, both particularly known for their landscapes rendered with a kind of painterly naturalism. As art curator Roni Neuer wrote, "Yoshida is, for the early 20th Century, one of the top two artists that did landscape prints. Yoshida and Hasui Kawase revitalized the traditional Japanese landscape print." Hasui portrayed the Japanese landscape and its features and drew upon the ukiyo-e works of Utagawa Hiroshige. Yoshida traveled the world, beginning in the early 1920s, and made prints of the noted landscapes of North America, Europe, North Africa, and Asia, which were globally popular. Yet Yoshida is also an example of the sometimes blurred lines between the shin-hanga and sōsaku-hanga movements, as he is considered to be a leader of the shin-hanga movement, he also created his own printing shop to oversee each step in the process.


This double image shows the two sides of the woodblock, carved by Kōshirō Onchi and stained with the colors of his printing, to create <i>Light Time</i> (1915).

Sōsaku-hanga played a pioneering role in abstraction in Japanese art, particularly through the work of Kōshirō Onchi. His Light Time (1915) is considered to be the first truly abstract Japanese work. However, it was primarily in the late 1930's that abstraction became a leading tendency in sōsaku-hanga, as a new generation of artists like Gen Yamaguchi, Yoshida Masaji, and Shinagawa Takum were influenced by Onchi both in creating abstract works and exploring innovative techniques, as seen in Yamaguichi's Composition (1966). As Masaji wrote, "it was Onchi after the war, who gave me the impetus to do abstract work.... As I listened to him I found that he expressed many ideas I had long felt, and this gave me the confidence I needed."


A number of sōsaku-hanga artists became part of the mingei, or the Folk Art movement launched in 1926 by Sōetsu Yanagi, a philosopher and one of the founding members of the Shirakaba-ha society. Yanagi's interest in art began in Korea in 1916 when he began to study and collect folk art objects, particularly ceramics. Yanagi defined mingei as the "hand-crafted art of ordinary people," and his advocacy led to both the creation of the Korean Folk Crafts Museum in 1921 and the Japanese Folk Crafts Museum in 1936. Serizawa Keisuke, a Japanese designer of textiles, became an artistic leader of the movement. He developed the katazome, or stencil dyeing, technique that allowed the inclusion of an uncolored area within a pattern that could then be hand colored, for which he was named in 1956 a Living National Treasure of Japan. He influenced a number of noted artists including Yoshitoshi Mori, Watanabe Sadao, and Shikō Munakata. Mori and Watanabe modified the katazome technique for fabric into the kappazuri, or stencil printing, technique for their sōsaku-hanga work.

Shikō Munakata began his career making sumizuri-e, or black ink only prints, starting in 1926. But his unique contribution to sōsaku-hanga began in 1935 when he met Yanagi Sōetsu, the founder of mingei, and subsequently became associated with the movement. Yanagi Sōetsu felt that mingei reflected the deep values of Japanese art and culture by honoring the medium's materiality with bold and spontaneous expression, devoid of self-consciousness.

Associated with mingei and also a devout Buddhist, Shikō Munakata developed a practice that valued the materiality of the wood that involved carving with spontaneous boldness, usually without preliminary sketches. As he said, "The mind goes and the tool walks alone." In contrast to Onchi who felt sōsaku-hanga was an expression of the self; Munakata felt that art was an expression of nature's reality and beauty, residing in the woodblock itself. He said, "the essence of hanga lies in the fact that one must give in to the ways of the board ... there is a power in the board, and one cannot force the tool against that power." His Ten Great Disciples of the Buddha (1939), a series of black and white prints carved out of magnolia blocks, exemplified his approach.

Later Developments - After Sōsaku-hanga Creative Prints

By the 1960's sōsaku-hanga as a vital movement had declined, in part due to the deaths of noted leaders like Onchi, but also due to the development of new international movements like Fluxus, the Gutai movement, and the new Japanese avant-garde. The printmaking that followed often explored Western techniques or combined that influence with both shin-hanga and sōsaku-hanga approaches.

Sōsaku-hanga's emphasis on avant-garde work and the exploration of technique was a primary influence on kindai hanga, modern or contemporary prints. The use of mixed media and innovative printing techniques by artists like Onchi and Munakata encouraged an attitude of openness to Western printing techniques as seen in the silk screening work of later Japanese artists like Sekine Yoshio, and Sawada Tetsurô. Onchi's exploration of photography influenced Taniguchi Shigeru, and, at the same time, his exploration of mixed media influenced later artists like Tetsuya Noda. Amano Kazumi in the 1960s was strongly inspired by his teacher Munakata Shikô. In the 1980s, both Hamaguchi Yozo and Hamanishi Katsunori drew upon sōsaku-hanga in making their mezzotint prints. The Scottish artist Paul Binnie and the Canadian David Bull have combined the influence of both shin-hanga and sōsaku-hanga in their work, as seen in Binnie's focus upon kabuki characters derived from ukiyo-e.

Sōsaku-hanga also influenced artists like Saburō Hasegawa, part of the Gutai movement and colleague of John Cage, in the development of what he called his "Multi-Block" prints, where he would randomly place carved blocks to create varying pictorial surfaces, or what he called "environments." Some scholars feel that Cage's use of graphic notation was influenced and inspired by Hasegawa's multi-blocks.

Of the individual artists who were part of the sôsaku-hanga movement, the most influential was Kôshirô Onchi, as he influenced several generations of artists, including Un'ichi Hiratsuka, Jun'ichiro Sekino, Gen Yamaguchi, Rikio Takahashi, Haku Maki, and Masaj Yoshida. As the artist Yamaguichi Gen said of the artist after his death, "Onchi was a vital artist...He was the embodiment of modern hanga in Japan and our ambassador to the rest of the world."

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Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols

"Sōsaku-hanga Creative Prints Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols
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First published on 21 Mar 2018. Updated and modified regularly
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