What is Sosaku Hanga?

Written by
Madison Folks
Published on
August 20, 2016 at 6:32:20 PM PDT August 20, 2016 at 6:32:20 PM PDTth, August 20, 2016 at 6:32:20 PM PDT

In the early 20th century, two distinct modern Japanese print movements emerged. Shin Hanga, or "new print," movement drew inspiration from Western pictorial techniques, employed growing realism, and reimagined popular ukiyo-e subject matter through a modern lens. The Sosaku Hanga, or "creative print," movement also pulled from an increasingly global artistic vocabulary, drawing heavily from the European avant-garde while honing its focus on the artist and the process of making. Printing became fully participatory, as opposed to the traditional delegation of the printmaking process between artist, engraver, printer and publisher that stretched through ukiyo-e and Shin Hanga. In the eyes of the Sosaku Hanga movement, the artist must participate in every aspect of production. The knife, the ink, the block, the paper—each material was integral to the artist's experience as a Sosaku Hanga artist.

Kiyoshi Saito. "Nude (C)." 1966. Woodblock print. Ronin Gallery.

Though the floating world of the Edo period (1603-1868) had dissipated in the face of rapid modernization, Sosaku Hanga artists adapted the woodblock medium to this changing Japan. Adopting new techniques and aesthetics, modern artists captured the spirit of the 20th century with a familiar medium. While prints of the Sosaku Hanga movement are diverse in style, inspiration, and subject, they are united through a heightened spontaneity and expressive attitude. Experimentation with different types of wood allowed artists to explore new formats and textures. Unlike the unnumbered prints of ukiyo-e, these 20th century prints were numbered and completed in limited runs.

While the movement began as early as 1904, Sosaku Hanga was slow to stir critical appeal within Japan. [1] Largely dismissed by the official art organizations and universities in Japan, artists took to showing their works on the pages on magazines. In 1939, Koshiro Onchi (1891-1955), considered a father of the movement, founded The First Thursday Society, bringing together artists and international collectors to discuss, develop, and promote woodblock printmaking. Despite the strain of WWII, the movement continued to develop throughout the course of the war. Yet, it was not until after the post-war period that Sosaku Hanga truly blossomed and achieved its current international reputation. As American GIs poured into Japan during the American Occupation, Sosaku Hanga artists found an eager audience among soldiers stationed in Japan as well as the new wave of tourists and business people that followed.

The Sao Paulo Art Bienniale of 1951 marked a critical victory to the movement's recognition in Japan. As printmakers such Kiyoshi Saito (1907-1997) brought home prizes, Japanese painters and sculptors left Brazil empty handed. This international victory marked a turning point for the Sosaku Hanga artists, as well as other Japanese printmakers. The movement's audience grew, sparking enthusiasm worldwide, revered institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston developed robust collections of these modern prints. As Sosaku Hanga grew from ukiyo-e roots, contemporary Japanese printmaking is inextricably tied to the Sosaku Hanga. The emphasis on the individual and artistic autonomy that matured throughout the Sosaku Hanga movement course throughout the Japanese printmaking community today.

Yoshitoshi Mori. "Potted Plant Fair." 1957. Kappazuri. Ronin Gallery.

Shiko Munakata. "The Infinite Mercy of Buddha: Hana Fukaki no Kokoro." 1961. Woodblock print. Ronin Gallery.

Junichiro Sekino. "The Six Jizo at Yamashina, Kyoto." 1970. Woodblock print. Ronin Gallery.

[1] Rimer, After Meiji, 368.