Amid Historic Shifts in 20th-Century Japan, Shin-Hanga Artists Found Refuge in Printmaking

Alexandra Alexa
Jul 8, 2015 4:00AM

The turn of the 20th century was a time of fertile dialogue between Eastern and Western art practices. While many Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists were drawing on traditional Japanese ukiyo-e wood block prints for their innovative compositions, use of flat color fields, and simple lines, a group of artists in Japan were seeking a way to revitalize the traditional print in light of the many changes taking hold of the country.

Out of this moment emerged the shin-hanga (“new prints”) movement. With one eye to Realist techniques and new ideas about artistic expression, and one eye on traditional subject matter, these artists sought to uncover the poetics of the Japanese landscape at a time of rapid industrialization and Westernization. Ronin Gallery’s group show “Forever and a Day” collects the work of three shin-hanga artists—Hasui Kawase, Hiroshi Yoshida, and Hiroaki Takahashi—and, with a focus on the landscape genre, questions how these works became sites of idealistic contemplation. 


Perhaps most emblematic of this hybrid aesthetic, Yoshida’s works have a keen sensitivity to light and the passage of time. He would often paint the same scene at different times during the day—as in Sailing Boats - Mist (1926) and Sailing Boats - Morning (1926)—in a manner reminiscent of Claude Monet’s meditative studies of Rouen Cathedral.

In compositions like Shokozan (1939), Yoshida seems to be seeking the majestic effects of the sublime, a distinctly Western philosophy that also echoed the sense of discovery permeating Japan at the time. This idea is taken up more metaphorically in Takahashi’s Spring Evening (ca. 1936), where a woman stands poised to walk into an ethereal beyond.

On the other hand, shin-hanga artists also sought to uncover beauty in the obscure and mundane by representing the remote corners of their country that had yet to be touched by industry. In dreamy, moody compositions like Shinkawa at Night (1919) and Aoba Castle, Sendai (1933), Hasui renders the familiar in a new light and alludes to an underlying sense of anxiety about the changes taking place. He was also fascinated by the effects of weather and rendered rain with meticulous detail in order to suggest the transformative qualities of such transitory states. In Uchiyamashita, Okayama (1923) rain falls evenly across the surface of the work like a veil, and seems to suspend the lone figures in that singular moment of time.

Alexandra Alexa

Forever and a Day” is on view at Ronin Gallery, New York, Jun. 10–Aug. 14, 2015.

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