Akiyama Iwao

Azechi Umetarô

Hiratsuka Un’ichi

Itow Takumi

Iwami Reika

Minami Keiko

Yoshida Chizuko

May 11th-July 14th 2019

Opening Reception May 11th 3-6 pm

Waking Bulbs of the Sōsaku-hanga surveys seven artists from the Japanese woodblock print movement, the Sōsaku-hanga.  Beginning with Yamamoto Kanae in 1904, the movement was founded on two basic principles: freedom of creativity and self expression, along with complete artistic autonomy under the roof of the woodblock print medium.  Its very essence championed the investigation of the self within the framework of a practice ingrained in Japanese identity. The artists included here are bound by their strong individual voices, and fused by the movements collective spirit of independence and experimentation.  

The exhibition features three prominent female Sōsaku-hanga artists: Iwami Reika, Minami Keiko, and Yoshida Chizuko, all of whom belonged to the progressive association of nine female printmakers, the Joryu Hanga Kyokai, formed in 1957.  Additionally included are: Akiyama Iwao, Azechi Umetarô, Itow Takumi and one of the leaders of the Sōsaku-hanga from its second generation, Hiratsuka Un’ichi.  Multiple works are included by Azechi Umetarô, who was mentored by both Hiratsuka Un’ichi and Onchi Koshiro.  Waking Bulbs of the Sōsaku-hanga comprises many works by Itow Takumi, who is still actively making work in Tokyo today.  Much of these included works are presented for the very first time in New York City.

Origins of the Sōsaku-hanga 

The Edo period (1603-1868) in Japan denoted a time of isolation, where upon foreign trade was outlawed and strict governance imposed where and how its people could live.  The environment provoked far reaching effects, permeating the economy, culture and its people.  

Radical strides in the arts would be a silver lining to the unfavorable societal conditions.  In the performing arts, Kabuki and Noh theater thrived and gained wide popularity.  The visual arts produced painting and woodblock prints known as Ukiyo-e.  Ukiyo translation “floating world”, reflected many aspects of life; including the hedonistic freedoms, ubiquitous in the urban areas.

The process of woodblock printing begins with an idea; drawn or sketched, then carved into one or multiple wood block(s), and finally printed from the block(s) onto paper with ink and/or paints is known as moku-hanga [moku (wood) han (printing block) ga (picture)] or woodblock print in english.  Despite being widely considered a low-art in Japan during the Edo and much of the conjoining Meiji period (1869-1912), the medium evolved magnificidently during this time.  Its maturation yielded a highly sophisticated practice, both technically and artistically.  In contrast, the western world had long since abandoned the woodblock, opting for the more pragmatic and utilitarian use of metal type and plates.

After nearly 300 years of sustained isolation, Japan re-opened its borders in 1868, ushering in a tidal wave of collective culture shock.  Society struggled to honor its own history and achievements while educating and orienting itself with western ideas and developments.  Schools, institutions, and artists alike similarly grappled with the dichotomy of embracing Japan’s own artistic history, while incorporating styles and aesthetics from the west.

Out of this confusion came an answer poetically distilled in a new art movement: the Sōsaku-hanga (translation: creative print).  Mokuhanga had long functioned inside a division of labor between designer, carver, printer and publisher.  The artists of the Sōsaku-hanga would work independently, from conception, carving to print.  Their dogma championed the independence from tradition and genre; leaving room for self discovery, experimentation and the flexibility to embrace multitudes of ideas and philosophies.  Sōsaku-hanga was a revitalizing masterstroke of synergy; utilizing the depth of achievement in Japanese mokuhanga, and at the same time fostering an openness for progressive attitudes. 

The influence of Japanese aesthetics and art on western countries cannot be overstated.  Following the Edo period, the impact progressed rapidly from fascination to obsession, a phenomenon known as Japonisme.  Elements and themes specific to mokuhanga and Ukiyo-e directly inspired the french Impressionist, specifically the implementation of sharp lines, flat planes of color, and ornamental textile patterns.  One might venture to suggest that Impressionism gave way to Modernism, and hence Fauvism, Futurism, and the continued trajectories of art movement-ism’s to befall both east and west.

Often underappreciated and overlooked today, the artists of the Sōsaku-hanga were embolden by a medium that defined their cultural history and by a sovereignty of the artistic self.  Waking Bulbs of Sōsaku-hanga surveys seven artists from the movements second, third and fourth generations. Behold the awesomeness of the Sōsaku-hanga, lucid and thriving.

“The art of the Ukiyo-e was dead, but the art of woodblock was simply dormant, gathering strength like a wintering bulb.” - Helen Merritt

About the Artists

Akiyama Iwao  (b.1921-d.2014) was born in Oita prefecture on the island of Kyushu. Akiyama first took drawing lessons with a Buddhist monk while growing up.  He studied mokuhanga with Sōsaku-hanga artist Munakata Shiko from 1959-1965.  Akiyama is known for working on spotted mulberry paper, and favoring a monochromatic palette of black with minimal use of color.  His subject matter focused on the female figure, roaming monks, and animals- with an emphasis on owls and cats.  The combination of the spotted paper along with rough edged line quality contributed to a fuzzy animated quality to his work, illuminating his subjects with subtle and quirky expressiveness.

Azechi Umetaro  (b.1902-d.1999) from Uwajima, Ehime Prefecture, lived a stoic life, fueled by an innate determination and code of self reliance.  Raised by an ailing farming family, Azechi left home at 16, seeking opportunity in Tokyo.  Gradually he followed clues leading him to the vocation of an artist, and more specifically as a woodblock artists.  Under the tutelage of Hiratsuka Un’ichi and Onchi Koshiro, Azechi embraced the freedoms of the Sōsaku-hanga movement, channelling and developing a wholly unique iconography from his passion for mountaineering.  Azechi’s oeuvre is highly recognizable and embodies a whimsical and primitive identity, perpetually hip and unpretentiously cool.  

Hiratsuka Un’ichi (b.1895-d.1997) was among the leaders of the second generation of the Sosaku-hanga, where it gained intellectual traction.   His imagery centered on figures and landscapes, frequently depicting temples and Buddhist iconography.  He utilized bright pastels in his early work and extracted color all together in his later monochrome efforts. Hiratsuka once remarked that the first recorded woodblock prints, (commissioned in the 8th century by Japanese, Empress Koken), would have only been produced by the capable hands of sculptors.  Their expressive strength ideal to accommodate the monarchs request of one million printed Buddhist prayer charms.  Together with peer Onchi Koshiro, their teachings, mentoring and leadership solidified the fortitude of the Sōsaku-hanga .  One of his many pupils, Umetaro Azechi, is also featured in this exhibition.

Itow Takumi (b.1946)  inspired by his father, a painter and taught by Sōsaku-hanga artist Mabuchi Toru, Itow has produced an immense body of work in three parts.  One devoted to the writings of Miyazawa Kenji, another focused on wildflowers and inspired by a childs’ card matching game, “Karuta”  and a third devoted to Matsuri (festivals).  The latter work illuminates local celebrations, unique to Japanese communities, that share ceremonial pagan qualities.  Depicting ritual, costume, dance and parade,  Itow San skillfully presents the carnivalesque pageantry, its energy summoning the supernatural; whilst simultaneously echoing a sense of honored tradition. Itow is actively making work today in Tokyo and has exhibited at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA, as well as at The Library of Congress in Washington D.C..

Iwami Reika (b.1927) creates work rooted in both geometric abstraction and abstract realism, meditating on subtle imagery of water, wood and the moon.  In her formative years Iwami longed to be a sculptor, but without the means for tools and materials, she opted to study doll making.  After her first exposure to artists of the Sōsaku-hanga, particularly Koshiro Onchi, she was able to study under Sekinō Jun’ichiro (1914-1988) and Shinagawa Takumi (1908-2009), committing herself to the woodblock practice.
She employs a limited color palette of black and white, along with minimal greys and silver and gold foils.  Iwami often incorporates found objects in her prints, regularly using items collected on the beach.  Using a controlled application of ink, Iwami utilizes the reveal of woodgrain compositionally.  Among other techniques, such as embossing, Iwami’s approach and trademark style illicites imagery of the natural, mystic and symbolic.  She notably co-founded the aforementioned Joryu Hanga Kyokai association.  The group was co-founded with Yoshida Chizuko, and with inclusion of member Minami Keiko.

As the Sōsaku-hanga movement progressed, so did the acceptable perimeters of the medium, as some artists chose to step outside the use of woodblock to work in various printmaking techniques. 
Minami Keiko (1911-2004) born an orphan in Toyama prefecture had by High School gravitated towards poetry and art.  In her formative years she studied children stories with noted novelist and poet Tsuboi Sakae.  In 1953 along with her husband and artist, Hamaguchi Yozo she relocated to Paris, and began studying Aquatint printmaking with the german/french artist Johnny Friedlaender.  The technique developed in France in the 18th century uses copper plates, acids and granulated resin.  Minami, influenced by both Japanese print artists as well as western artists (attributing Paul Klee as a major inspiration), created a body of work deeply personal, childlike and delicate.  In 1959 she was named the official artist of the United Nations, the same year she began representation through the german art dealer and collector Heinz Berggruen

Yoshida Chizuko  (1924-2017) the other co-founder of the Joryu Hanga Kyokai is known for her fearless experimentation, conspicuously mining the abstract in much of her work.  Active in multiple painting and print associations and societies, Yoshida devoted many years of her career to painting.  Inspired by the cross pollination of Japanese traditions and modernism embodied in the Sōsaku-hanga movement, she began a devoted mokuhanga practice in 1953.  Yoshida shared many similarities to Iwami; incorporating both embossing and found objects, addressing themes of nature and abstraction.  In her own right she embraced the avant garde and seamlessly explored themes of Modernism and Surrealism.  Many artists populate Yoshida’s family, she married the painter Yoshida Hodaka, whose parents Fujio and Hiroshi Yoshida were also noted artists.  Her daughter Ayomi, is an accomplished multidisciplinary contemporary artist, also working in mokuhanga.  Yoshida is best known for her prints of butterflies, that transform from representational into swarms of shapes and abstraction.

Belli Gallery is the exhibition vehicle for art dealer and nomadic gallerist Jonathan Belli. This is the second collaboration with Belli and furniture designer Will Kavesh, his partner Nicole Cornell and their company Token.  Token’s workshop and gallery space are located in the historic Beard and Robinson Stores built in the 1860s along the Hudson River in Red Hook Brooklyn, NY.  

This Exhibition was made possible with the help and support of Steven Amedee, Ren Brown, Elias Martin, Matthew Messmer and Allison Tolman.