Shin-hanga artist, Kawase Hasui’s woodblock prints are simply beautiful. Some might say they are nostalgic, but they are all executed with impeccable draftsmanship. I have been a big fan of his work for years. This year marks the 130th years since his birth and in order to commemorate this, two museums in Tokyo are having major exhibits of his work.
Luckily, during my visit to Tokyo this past January, I was able to visit and view one of these exhibits at the Ota City Folk Museum in Tokyo. (The other exhibit is held at Chiba Art Museum.)
Hasui lived his later years in Ota ward and so this ward is the depository of his papers, sketches, watercolors, and the woodblock prints that were printed by Watanabe Publishing house. The Ota Museum has planned a three-part exhibit: the first one focusing on his work through the 1920s, the second one covering the period from the Kanto Earthquake in 1923 into the 1930s, and the third one from 1930s through his later years.
A good ten-minute walk from the Minami Magome station, the Ota Museum building is an unassuming modern concrete building. But once inside I was immediately amazed by the quality of the items on display. The glass cases were filled with Hasui woodblock prints and, not only that, the prints were arranged carefully next to the pencil sketches and watercolors he had prepared for each print.
I had read before that late in his life, due to a fire, Hasui lost most of his original watercolors and sketches. I had never thought I would be able to see so many watercolors of such astonishing quality by him.
As a block print artist, I am familiar with the process of making woodblock prints. Being able to examine first-hand various stages of Hasui’s work — from rough sketches to final execution, was a real treat for me, and I believe will be for many others. Especially I enjoyed viewing how he studied and sketched parts of the buildings, trees, and townscapes, first with pencil, then in watercolor. As artists, we’re constantly trying to achieve a harmonious composition — we eliminate unwanted details, rearranges compositions, find motifs, create patterns, adjust colors, so that the final work will hopefully achieve the balance we wish for.
One might be tempted to ask which he/she prefers — Hasui’s watercolor sketches or the finished block print. Without question there is undeniable perfection and beauty in the finished woodblock prints executed by the Watanabe publishing house based on Haui’s sketches. Compared to the prints, Hasui’s sketches look unfinished and raw. But the real value of these sketches lies in its ability to reveal this artists’ process of work, his skills, and his mind at work.
The exhibit will be on until March 2nd and I hope many people can have the opportunity to see this wonderful exhibit. For those who cannot make it to Japan this winter, the Museum produced a very comprehensive color catalog of the three-part exhibit. It includes all the images that are on exhibit. But I must say that there is absolutely no comparison between looking at the printed catalog pages and seeing the actual sketches and woodblock prints. Nuance and immediacy are gone in these catalog pages. If you really want to look into the artist’s process of creation, then I recommend you hop on the airplane to Tokyo today!
Information about the Hasui Exhibit:
■Early Period: from 27th October (Sunday) to 1st December (Sunday) 2013 “Works from Taisho Era to Restoration after Great Kanto Earthquake” — closed
■Middle Period: from 7th December 2013 (Saturday) to 19th January 2014 (Sunday) “Works from early to 10’s of Showa era” — closed
■Period: from 25th January (Saturday) to 2nd March (Sunday) 2014 “Works in the Showa 20’s and at his last years” — ongoing
■Venue: Folk Museum of Ota City, 5-11-13, Minami-magome, Ota-ku, Tokyo
■Contact: TEL: +81-3-3777-1070 FAX: +81-3-3777-1283
You can also visit Watanabe Woodblock Gallery in Ginza, Tokyo, to view and purchase newly reproduced woodblock prints and other “shin-hanga” artists.
What is your New Year ritual? Some like to gather and party and others dare to jump into the ocean (I tried that once!) Recently I like to go to a mountain or a beach with our children. This year I was ecstatic as I was able to be in Tokyo and celebrate the beginning of a new year in a traditional Japanese way.
All over Japan at midnight on New’s Year’s eve — people both young and old —go to a nearby shrine or a temple, get in line, and wait for their turn to ring the large bell there to welcome in the New Year. At temples, townspeople ring the bell 108 times to rid themselves of bad karma. It is a festive, communal affair, with hot sake being served along side soba noodles in a warm broth. The famous large temples make a lot of money from people coming and tossing coins in as they pray, while the the small temples and shrines have events that are organized by local neighborhood groups and are more about the community gathering together.
The one I walked to with my children was a tiny shrine that dates back several centuries near my parents home. My uncle and a band of local men and women had volunteered to set up a large bonfire and offer food and drink to the visitors. After saying hi to my uncle, we stood in line like the others, bundled up against the cold, and waited for an hour for a chance to ring the bell.
I am a skeptic at heart. So I don’t particularly believe in the 108 bad karma (no thank you!) or the religious benefit of the bell ringing. But standing there, with the other Japanese men and women, I thought: This is the way to start off the year right. I suppose it was the community aspect of this event that made me want to participate, spending time with my children, and passing down our traditions, one generation to the next.
In the early hours, after ringing the bell, we hurried home, wishing others “Happy New Years” as we passed by them. My daughter was walking half asleep and I had to pull her along by the arm. The streets were dark and quiet. But occasionally as we approached another temple or shrine, we could hear the deep slow sound of the giant gong echoing through the darkness.
But then, when the sun rose on the first of January and I woke up, the day seemed so bright, and so ordinary. The mysterious aspects of the night before seemed like a dream, or something from a movie. Getting dressed and waking up children, I felt the beautiful extraordinary ordinariness of this first day of the year.
Recently I came across a senryu (a form of haiku poem) by Issa Kobayashi. He seems to capture this feeling well.
A New Year arrives
In utter simplicity
And a deep blue sky
And so here is my wish to my friends and families: I wish all of you many days of extraordinarily ordinary happiness, simple pleasures of daily life, and a lot of blue skies.