East Meets West: The balanced woodblock printing art of Hasui Kawase
Hasui Kawase (1883 — 1957) was a renowned Japanese artist, who became one of the most prominent print designers of the shin-hanga (new prints) movement. Born into a family headed by a silk braid merchant, Bunjiro (Husui) Kawase’s artistic ability was first nurtured by his mother, who had close ties to Kabuki theatre that the family often attended. It was an early and rather significant influence on him; not only did he maintain ties to the theater for the rest of his life, the vivid imagery and dramatic lighting he learned there became defining staples of his own art work later on.
Although Kawase studied art and enjoyed sketching as a teen, he didn’t embark on his artistic career until 1907, when the 26-year-old aspiring artist began studying Western-style art with the Hakuba-kai (White Horse Society), an association of Japanese creatives that practiced yoga as well as Western-style painting. Then, in 1910, he started practicing Japanese-style painting with Kiyokata Kaburaki (1878 — 1972), a Nihonga artist and the leading master of the bijin-ga (beautiful women) genre, who gave him the name Hasui.
Kaburaki used to introduce his best students to Shōzaburō Watanabe (1885 — 1962), a prestigious print publisher and the driving force behind the shin-hanga movement. Watanabe recognized Kawase’s artistic genius and published his landscape prints, which were inspired by Itō Shinsui’s series Eight Views of Lake Biwa, in 1918. “From then on Hasui worked very extensively as a designer of landscape prints... and from almost the beginning inspired the carvers and printers to produce newer and subtler efforts, especially in the expression of snow.”
Kawase was in delicate health throughout his life. As a result, during his youth the aspiring artist spent a lot of time at the hot-spring resort of Shiobara where his aunt lived, which is also where his love of the Japanese landscape first flourished. As an adult and an established artist, he continued to explore Japan and travelled extensively to capture its natural splendor. He was especially fond of snow, rain, and mist, all of which were heavily featured in his most famous works.
Unfortunately, in 1923, a terrible earthquake destroyed his house, sketchbooks, and finished woodblocks. Those that survive are still in great demand by fans, gallerists, and fine art collectors around the world. The event, however, did little to slow down Hasui: “he was financed by Watanabe to go on a sketching trip to produce more series, and also worked occasionally for other publishers to eke out his income.” By the time of his death, Kawase produced more than 400 woodblock designs for Watanabe alone, and over 600 designs overall.
The Zojo Temple in Snow prints are considered to be his most famous works of art. The first of these was likely printed between 1921 and 1922. It features a man dressed in western-style attire, walking toward the temple in the snow. According to the Japanese Art Open Database (JAODB), it is one of the rarest and finest of all Kawase’s pre-earthquake prints, since the limited edition work was capped off at 100 copies. Other versions of scenes featuring the Zojo Temple in Snow followed over the years.
“In 1956, the Japanese government’s Committee for the Preservation of Intangible Cultural Heritage designated Zojo Temple in Snow and the documentation of its production as Intangible Cultural Treasures, the greatest artistic honor in postwar Japan.” The artist was named a National Living Treasure that same year. The appeal of Kawase’s work lies in its ability to capture Japan’s storied past by fusing traditional woodblock printing with Western-style art. In fact, Hasui Kawase regarded his work as the end of a long tradition in Japanese landscape art, and in the decades since his death, no successor has appeared.
Take a look at some of his impressive works below: