Hasui Kawase : the dazzling modernity of the japanese master

Hasui Kawase : the dazzling modernity of the japanese master

Hasui Kawase, a luminary of the Shin-hanga ("New Prints") movement, stands as a testament to the enduring allure of Japanese woodblock prints. His captivating compositions effortlessly blend tradition with modernity, offering a window into the soul of Japan's landscapes and urban vistas. In this article, we delve into the life, artistry, and enduring legacy of Hasui Kawase, celebrating his profound impact on the world of art.

Early Life and Influences:

His uncle on his father's side was Kanagaki Robun (1829–94), a prominent Japanese author and journalist, credited with creating the inaugural manga magazine. During his youth, Kawase enrolled in the school of the esteemed painter Aoyagi Bokusen.

There, he honed his skills by sketching from natural scenes, emulating the techniques of master woodblock printmakers, and delving into brush painting under the guidance of Araki Kanyu. Although his parents initially steered him toward managing the family's rope and thread wholesaling enterprise, its collapse when he was 26 redirected him towards his true passion for art. 

He initially sought instruction from Kiyokata Kaburagi, but Kaburagi suggested he delve into Western-style painting, leading him to study under Okada Saburōsuke for a period of two years. After this time, he reapplied to Kaburagi, who accepted him as a student. It was during this period that Kiyokata bestowed upon him the name Hasui, meaning "water gushing from a spring." This name was derived from elements of his elementary school and an ideogram from his family name.

His collaboration with the publisher Shōzaburō Watanabe :

Upon witnessing an exhibition featuring Shinsui Itō's Eight Views of Lake Biwa, Kawase approached Shōzaburō Watanabe, the publisher responsible for Shinsui's works. This encounter led to Kawase designing three experimental prints, which Watanabe published in August 1918. Subsequently, in 1919, Kawase produced the series Twelve Scenes of Tōkyō, Eight Views of the Southeast, and the inaugural Souvenirs of Travel comprising 16 prints. Each series was released gradually, with two prints issued at a time.

In front left side: Shiro Kasamatsu, right side Shôzaburô Watanabe. In the back from left: Moriyama, Kawase Hasui, American couple, Itō Shinsui and his wife (1941)

In front left side: Shiro Kasamatsu, right side Shôzaburô Watanabe. In the back from left: Moriyama, Kawase Hasui, American couple, Itō Shinsui and his wife (1941)

Mastery of Technique and style :

Kawase primarily focused his artistic endeavors on landscape and townscape prints, drawing inspiration from sketches and watercolors depicting scenes from Tokyo and his travels throughout Japan.

However, his prints diverge from the traditional meisho (famous places) prints commonly associated with earlier ukiyo-e masters like Hiroshige and Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849). Kawase's compositions portray serene and lesser-known locales amidst Japan's urbanization process.

Hasui's work can be described as atmospheric in the noblest sense. He excels in his depiction of natural atmospheres and elements: snow, of course, but also night and rain in varying degrees of intensity. 

Hiraizumi Konjikido, Hasui Kawase 
Hachirōgata Lagoon, Akita 

In 1920, Kawase crafted his inaugural falling snow print, marking a significant milestone in his artistic journey. Renowned for their innovation and excellence, his snowscapes stand out as some of his finest creations. Reflecting on his earlier works, Kawase remarked, "In my earlier pieces, there are fresh approaches in carving lines and forms, which sometimes prompted complaints from the craftsmen." He further commented on the dynamic between designer and printer : 

In the case of printing we must interact very closely. A less experienced printer might waste seven or eight trial prints before a successful one is made. If someone is experienced we can decide on the final print after two or three trials. It occurs occasionally that despite best efforts, a successful print is still not produced. This is the hard part of composite art. It requires telepathic communication. Unless all parties are completely in tune, the process will not work. When my mind and the minds of the artisans are in complete agreement, a good work can be generated.



Iconic Series:

Twelve Scenes of Tōkyō (1919-1921)

Twelve Scenes of Tōkyō / Tōkyō jūnidai is a series of Nishiki-e made by Hasui Kawase issued 1919 to 1921.

Nishiki-e (錦絵, "brocade picture") is a type of Japanese multi-coloured woodblock printing; the technique is used primarily in ukiyo-e

Selected Views of Japan (1922 - 1926)

Selected Views of Japan / Nihon fūkei senshū is a series of Nishiki-e made by Hasui Kawase issued 1922 to 1926.

Suhara, Kiso(Kiso no Suhara), from the series Selected Views of Japan (Nihon fūkei senshū), woodblock print

Twenty Views of Tōkyō (1925-1930)

Twenty Views of Tōkyō / Tōkyō nijū kei / Tōkyō Nijukkei is a series of Nishiki-e done by Hasui Kawase issued 1925 to 1930.

Zōjō-ji in Shiba, 1925. From series Twenty Views of Tōkyō.
Zōjō-ji in Shiba, 1925. From series Twenty Views of Tōkyō.

Souvenirs of Travel I (1919-1920)

Souvenirs of Travel I / Tabi miyage dai isshū is a series of Nishiki-e done by Hasui Kawase issued 1919 to 1920.

Katsura Island in Matsushima, from the series Souvenirs of Travel I (Tabi miyage dai isshū)

Souvenirs of Travel II (1921)

Souvenirs of Travel II / Tabi miyage dai nishū is a series of Nishiki-e done by Hasui Kawase issued in 1921.
Shimohonda-machi in Kanazawa (Kanazawa Shimohonda-machi), from the series Souvenirs of Travel II (Tabi miyage dai nishū), woodblock print

Souvenirs of Travel III (1924-1929)

Souvenirs of Travel III / Tabi miyage dai sanshū , is a series of Nishiki-e, done by Hasui Kawase, issued 1924 to 1929.

Ryuga Island, Oga Peninsula (Oga Hantō, Ryūgashima), from the series Souvenirs of Travel III (Tabi miyage dai sanshū)

Influence and Legacy:

Throughout his four-decade-long artistic journey, Kawase maintained a close collaboration with Shōzaburō Watanabe, a prominent publisher and advocate of the shin-hanga movement. His artistic prowess gained widespread recognition in the West, largely facilitated by American connoisseur Robert O. Muller (1911–2003).

In 1956, Kawase received the prestigious honor of being named a Japanese Living National Treasure. Initially, the Committee for the Preservation of Intangible Cultural Treasures had planned to bestow this honor upon Kawase and Ito Shinsui in 1953, with the intention of celebrating traditional printmaking. However, due to the collaborative nature of their work involving designers, engravers, and printers, concerns were raised about singling out individual contributors for recognition. As a result, the committee commissioned both artists to create new prints, meticulously documenting the production process. Notably, Kawase's biographer, Narazaki Munishige, was among those who documented this process.

Kawase passed away on November 27, 1957, leaving behind a remarkable legacy. Throughout his career, he had crafted approximately 620 prints, each bearing testament to his artistic genius and enduring influence.

Hasui Kawase's influence extends far beyond the realm of printmaking, shaping the trajectory of Japanese art in the 20th century and beyond. His unique blend of traditional techniques and modern sensibilities continues to inspire artists around the globe, cementing his status as a true master of his craft.

Connoisseurs of Miyazaki's films will undoubtedly notice the master's influence on the aesthetics of Studio Ghibli's productions. The sacredness of nature and the importance of landscapes provide a narrative impetus conducive to reverie. It's as if we were being told: "Look at how incredible nature is. If it's capable of being so enchanting, why should we be any more surprised by the presence of imaginary folk creatures?

Hasui Kawase's posters on Wallango 

Nikko kaido hasui kawase


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