Nature Is Perfectly Miserable in These Rare Japanese Woodblock Prints

Hasui Kawase helped revive a Japanese printmaking tradition in the 20th century with scenes from the natural world.

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Dec 21 2016, 3:05pm

Snow at Tsukijima, 1930. Images courtesy of The Ronin Gallery 

As winter approaches, dark, moody landscapes might be increasingly common sights throughout the Northern Hemisphere. Only few of these scenes, however, are likely to be as beautifully composed as the work of one celebrated Japanese artist, currently on view at The Ronin Gallery in Manhattan. Kawase Hasui: Quiet Elegance features over 50 signed woodblock prints collected by U.S. military officers between the end of World War II and the end of the Korean War. Owner of The Ronin Gallery David Taro Libertson tells The Creators Project why Hasui’s work is so unique: “Known for his night scenes and meticulously rendered snow or rainfall, Hasui’s work is revered for its ability to capture atmosphere. Characterized by their serenity of mood and flawless compositions, his prints convey the natural world with an unmatched sensitivity to the splendor of each time of day, to the particular beauty of each season.”

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Sudden Shower at Imai Bridge

Japan is famous for its woodblock printmaking tradition, specifically works made during the Edo Period (1603 to 1868) in the ukiyo-e style, which translates to “pictures from the floating world.” Hasui’s work is significant for its role in reviving the ukiyo-e tradition in the 20th century and infusing it with Western art concepts, like realism. “Hasui worked at the threshold of memory and modernity. He was a leading artist of the shin-hanga, or “New Print” movement. Together Shin-Hanga and Sosaku Hanga (or “Creative Prints”) brought the woodblock print into the modern age. Competing with lithography, photography, and the spectrum of Western technique, the woodblock medium asserted its significance and expressive power through these movements,” says Libertson.

Print publisher Watanabe Shōzaburō, with whom Hasui worked extensively throughout his career, coined the shin-hanga term. Amongst the works exhibited by The Ronin Gallery is one print of particular historical significance that was published by Watanabe Shōzaburō. “In 1956, the Japanese government’s Committee for the Preservation of Intangible Cultural Heritage designated his print Zojo Temple in Snow at Shiba and the documentation of its production as Intangible Cultural Treasures, the greatest artistic honor in post-war Japan. While he was inspired by the Western artistic influence that permeated Japan at this time, Hasui retained a passionate allegiance to traditional subjects,” says Libertson.

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Zojo Temple in Snow at Shiba, 1925

Although Hasui started making print editions in 1918, there is a reason that nearly all the work on view was published after 1923. “Unfortunately, during the earthquake of 1923, all of his woodblocks and over 200 sketches were destroyed. The works that predate this event are extremely scarce and in great demand today,” says a statement from The Ronin Gallery. But Hasui carried on producing prints despite that tragic setback, much to the benefit of the Japanese printmaking tradition. As Libertson points out, “By championing the woodblock print, Hasui and his fellow 20th century masters ensured the dynamic woodblock print scene we have today.”

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Snow at Mukojima, 1931

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Shuzenji in Rain, 1933

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Rain at Maekawa, 1932

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Kaminohashi at Fukagawa, 1920

See more the works in Kawase Hasui: Quiet Elegance here

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