“Shin Hanga: The New Prints of Japan, 1900-1950”

Shin Hanga: The New Prints of Japan, 1900-1950, Chris Uhlenbeck, Jim Dwinger, Philo Ouweleen (Ludion, Thames and Hudson, April 2022) Shin Hanga: The New Prints of Japan, 1900-1950, Chris Uhlenbeck, Jim Dwinger, Philo Ouweleen (Ludion, Thames and Hudson, April 2022)

Printmaking was an art form that Japanese artists had excelled in the 18th and 19th centuries but which eventually experienced a decline in the 20th century. Yet, the early 20th century was a period in which Japanese arts in general underwent profound transformations with a growing familiarity with modern European art movements and modernism was certainly felt in the realm of printmaking. The shin hanga (“new prints”) movement reflects the syncretism of Western and traditional Japanese cultures as well as the influence of western codes on Japanese prints.

Compiled by Chris Uhlenbecc, Shin Hanga: The New Prints of Japan 1900-1960 brings together the work of two Dutch collectors Tobias Lintvelt and René Scholten who have been captivated by the new prints of Japan. They haven’t been alone: since the 1990s, museums and private collectors have shown a growing interest in shin hanga. Who doesn’t recognize the most iconic Japanese prints? as Chris Uhlenbeck questions. “The Great Wave off the Coast of Kanagawa” (1832) by Katsushika Hokusai, Utagawa Hiroshige’s “Sudden Shower over the Great Bridge at Atake” (1857), the countless beautiful women prints by Kitagawa Utamaro and the actor heads of Toshūsai Sharaku. As emblematic images of popular imagination, these woodblock prints, printed on high-quality paper using the finest pigments, can be ranked alongside Van Gogh’s The Starry Night and Leonardo’s Mona Lisa.

shinhanga2

The shin hanga movement was a revival of its precursor, ukiyo-e art (images of the floating world) which flourished from the 17th through 19th centuries. The prints are a result of the traditional yet successful collaboration between the artist, block-cutter, publisher and printer. Fearing a decline in xylographic production due to competition from imported printing techniques like lithography, the publisher Watanabe Shōzaburō (1885-1962) sought to revive Japanese printmaking by pushing for the development of a new language of style and form. While the classically-depicted women were stylized and idealized, their more recent counterparts are based on real models, imbued with greater emotional depth and individuality. Employing a range of tonal nuances to attain highly atmospheric effects, the modern landscapes are impressionistic rather than figurative. Nevertheless, with not much demand in the domestic market, shin hanga prints targeted primarily at foreign markets and appealed to Western taste for romanticized, nostalgic views of Japan.

Neighborhood streets, snow scenes, the river, gardens, festivals and the weather: the Japanese printmakers adroitly made the world of everyday appear perpetual, unchanging and implausibly tranquil. In the numerous landscapes illustrated in this publication, the interaction between location and weather conditions is arresting. Rain and snow dominate, symbolizing Japanese artists’ preoccupation with the natural elements. The prints of Kawase Hasui (1883-1957) emphasize the subtle play of light on water, with works depicting the moon shining through the clouds and casting a long scintillating trail on the sea, or lamplight from a farmhouse that illuminates a canal, accentuating an air of loneliness and emptiness.

Some critics might say it is not so much their subject matter as through their visual language that shin hanga prints set themselves apart from the traditional ukiyo-e. Designed expressly to capitalize on foreign demand, shin hanga represents the diversity of practice that has characterized the medium since Japan’s pursuit of westernization and modernization. From the last decades of the 19th century on, artists started to look abroad for inspiration and discovered new ideas about art and artistic freedom. The dialogue between Western and Japanese art and aesthetics spurred the second creative print or sōsaku hanga (creative print) movement. To a great degree, sōsaku hanga adherents advocated the participation of the artist in the entire creative process from design to production. In theory, the sōsaku hanga artists were reluctant to employ publishers, although it was unavoidable at times in view of their marketing needs. Greater control over the entire process and the removal of the block cutter and printer as filters between their original design and the final product brought them closer to Western ideas about individuality and originality. They chose different subject matter and founded magazines, organised exhibitions, and were more politically and socially engaged.

The demand for landscape prints—of which Kasamatsu Shirō (1898-1991) was the main exponent—was boosted by the notion of the countryside as a symbol of the community and social order that were gradually waning in the face of rapid urbanization. The survival of the agrarian myth paralleled the need felt by bureaucrats to support agricultural production and innovation as a counter-weight to the incessant urban sprawl. “Agriculture as the foundation of the nation” was a popular slogan in 20th-century Japan, improving the market for landscape artists in the shin hanga movement. Some artists were however unwilling to venture out into the countryside, preferring to stay in Tokyo to create works on urban scenes. The contrast between town and country resulting from the strong division between modern and traditional Japan thus manifested in the shin hanga movement.

shinhanga3

To ensure the contemporary relevance of their work, shin hanga artists had to adapt their approach to human portrayals and the female subjects they depicted varied between deeply traditional and stridently modern notions of femininity, with self-effacing geisha representing the former and modern girls, distinctive for their westernized appearance and hedonistic lifestyles, representing the latter.

The bijinga genre was defined by its relationship to the Yoshiwara Edo’s brothel district in the 18th and 19th centuries. Depicting the most famous geisha and courtesans, the prints were pin-ups or disguised advertisements for teahouses, restaurants and textile merchants. By the end of the 19th century, the relationship between prints of beautiful women and night-time entertainment had started to fade. At the beginning of the 20th century, models were used for the first time, and the women portrayed gradually became recognizable individuals. Hashiguchi Goyo (1880-1921) completed dozens of drawings of his favorite model where he draws attention to her pose as she combs her hair or engages in her bathing ritual. Her expression is often pensive, somewhat melancholic and introverted. Ito Shinsui was also prolific in this genre, producing 77 prints of women, 65 of which were published by Watanabe.

Well-known for the subjects’ dramatic facial expressions, the genre of actor prints was one of the pillars of Japanese printmaking in the 19th century. Tens of thousands of actor print designs were created by members of the Utagawa school particularly during the early 19th century. The majority of kabuki prints were produced in direct relation to kabuki theatre as artists depicted actors in a specific role in a specific play on a specific day. The close relationship between performance and print disappeared in the 20th century. The prints evolved to become individual portraits of actors in their best-known roles, and were not directly linked to performances in the kabuki theatres.

The demand for shin hanga never regained its momentum post World War Two. Nonetheless, a small number of artists such as Tatsumi Shimura (1907–1980) and Shinsui Itō (1898–1972) persevered in the tradition to utilize the collaborative system in the 1960s. Japanese artists including Chikuseki Yamamoto and Kiyoshi Saitō (1907–1997) achieved international acclaim with their abstract creative prints particularly at the 1951 São Paulo Biennial. This publication presents a balanced selection in various genres of shin hanga prints created at the height of the movement.


Phyllis Teo is an art historian and writer currently based in Singapore. She is the author of Rewriting Modernism: Three Women Artists in Twentieth-Century China (Leiden University Press, 2016).