Modern Japanese Portraits

The 1940s and 1950s were a pivotal time for sōsaku hanga, the “creative prints” movement in Japan. Artists who had been trained primarily as oil painters turned to traditional woodblock printing to give full expression to their often somber images. Some of the most haunting portraits produced in Japan were created in this era, and they speak to the effort these artists made to imbue their subjects with a depth and psychological nuance entirely new to the medium.

This exhibition features the work of two such artists, Onchi Kōshirō (1891–1955) and Saitō Kiyoshi (1907–1997). Onchi, the main advocate of sōsaku hanga and one of the movement’s major artists, created prints that are decidedly Western oriented in style, with Vasily Kandinsky and Edvard Munch among his major influences. His portrait of poet and friend Hagiwara Sakutarō has been hailed as one of the most powerful prints produced by a 20th-century Japanese artist. The dark tones and wrinkled skin of its subject make for a disturbing image, in keeping with Hagiwara’s tendency toward depression brought on by war.

In 1944, Saitō Kiyoshi joined Onchi’s prolific, avant-garde circle (called Ichimokukai), whose members cherished the woodblock’s potential for radical self-expression. Having begun his career as an oil painter, Saitō later embraced the technique of woodblock print making, finding inspiration for subject matter and style in the works of Odilon Redon, Paul Gauguin, and, like Onchi, Munch. In 1951, he stunned Japanese art circles when he was awarded first prize at the São Paulo Biennale.