Shin hanga was a Japanese woodblock print movement that took place at the beginning of the twentieth century. Translating to “new prints,” shin hanga was a creation of the artistic exchange between Japanese and European cultures. With the Meiji restoration (1868-1912), Japan transformed itself into a major modern force through Westernization. As a result, early Meiji art embodied more Western values, such as realism in the form of etchings and photographs, as opposed to the traditions of ukiyo-e.
While Japanese art became more European, the West embraced Japanese prints in a movement called Japonisme. European artists began to implement Japanese art techniques such as shortening parts of the subject, employing blocks of color, splitting the composition into defined shapes, and altering the viewpoint to bring the foreground and background onto the same plane. Many well-known European artists such as Manet, Lautrec and Monet exhibited this. Van Gogh in particular showed heavy Japanese influence, especially from Hiroshige’s prints, going so far as to copy them with paint in his own vehement style.
When Japanese artists caught wind of the effect that ukiyo-e prints had on the European Impressionist and Post-Impressionist movements, they attempted to revive the tradition. Once again, the tide shifted, resulting in the creation of two new movements: shin hanga and sosaku hanga. Shin hanga involved a team, like the one used to make traditional woodblock prints, and utilised more ukiyo-e traditions. Sosaku hanga (“creative prints”) however, were produced by one person from start to finish, and borrowed heavily from the West.
The shin hanga movement found an ally in Watanabe Shozaburo (1885-1962). Growing up surrounded by ukiyo-e prints, he opened a shop in 1910, hoping to garner more recognition for shin hanga. He sought out artists to collaborate with, including Goyo, Shinsui, Hasui, Koson and Koitsu to name but a few.
Among the most internationally recognized was Hasui Kawase (1883-1957). Born to a working family, Hasui dropped out of school at the age of twelve due to health complications. After being pulled between his desire to study painting and his filial duty to run the family business, Hasui was finally able to pursue his dream when his sister and her husband took over the shop. At twenty five he sought the tutelage of renowned traditional Japanese figure painter Kaburagi Kiyokata, but was turned away due to his “old” age. Hasui went on to study with other painters, but eventually returned and was accepted under Kiyokata’s instruction in 1910. There, he copied Kioyokata’s drawings as well as prints by famous ukiyo-e artists such as Yoshitoshi and Kuniyoshi.
Hasui worked as a commercial artist from 1913-1923, designing covers for magazines and books. Upon seeing Ito Shinsui’s Eight Views of Omi in 1917, Hasui was inspired to show some of his sketches to Watanabe, who prompted him to submit and publish three experimental prints. Hasui embarked on numerous sketch trips, visiting northern Japan in 1919 and publishing an array of prints of Tokyo. He continued to travel, showing his prints in exhibitions such as Shinsaku hanga tenranakai (New creative print exhibition) in 1921. Hasui was the first woodblock print artist to be designated “Living National Treasure” by the Japanese government, and his piece Zojo Temple in Snow was given the honor of “Intangible Cultural Treasure.” The majority of Hasui’s prints center around landscapes. By depicting the beauty of Japan while incorporating elements of modernity, Hasui’s work has been described as a yearning for old Japan amidst his changing world.
This blending together of old and new Japan shines through in Hibiya Park (1936). The piece reads like a landscape: brightly colored bushes, trees, pale blue sky, and gentle lighting. The gravel pathway, metal fence, and towering building in the background indicate the modernity of the scene. For the midground, the lushness of the park is beautiful, still confined by the fence which does not stand out in direct contrast; rather, it accompanies the park, blending together the natural and manmade. The building in the back, another symbol of New Japan, appears reminiscent of a mountain with its beige hue, layered floors, and pointed top. Even so, the dark green leaves at the front of the print obscure and dull the imposition of this building. These details create a delicate push-pull between tradition and modernity, echoing the cultural shift and exchange that shin hanga stemmed from.
With the Great Kanto earthquake in 1923, both Hasui and the shin hanga movement suffered a setback in the subsequent destruction of Watanabe’s workshop. Despite losing most of his sketchbooks, prints, and blocks, Hasui continued to travel and remained productive, creating prints for Watanabe and other publishers through the rest of his life.
In a movement so heavily influenced by the westernization of Japan, artists such as Hasui expressed a longing and appreciation for the ways of old. Shin hanga melded together ukiyo-e traditions and European influences, to express a fascinating interplay between East and West. At its core shin hanga embodies a desire to modernize and to keep up with the changing world while also staying true to traditional values.
This post was written by Mei Bock during her 2018 summer internship at Ronin Gallery. We would like to thank Mei for all her hard and diligent work.
Till, Barry. Shin Hanga: The New Print Movement of Japan
Brown, Kendall H. Visions of Japan: Kawase Hasui’s Masterpieces