Works made in the late 1700s through the late 19th century are what most people think of when asked about Japanese woodblock prints. Hiroshige, Hokusai, and Utamaro are among the most iconic. What did Japanese printmaking look like beyond the turn of the century? Artists, such as Jun’ichirō Sekino, embraced internationalism and took printmaking in new directions, both in scale and style, during the mid-20th century.
After years of self-imposed isolation, Japan opened its doors to trade with the West in 1854 and European influences flooded in, and vice versa. In 1890, an exhibition at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris showcased more than 1,000 prints and illustrated books from private collections. European and American avant-garde artists were fascinated with the subjects and formal construction.
American artist Helen Hyde lived in Japan from 1899-1914. She and her contemporaries adopted the Japanese prints’ characteristic flat use of color and space, strong use of line, and bold, often asymmetrical compositions in their own works.
Japanese artist Hiroshi Yoshida traveled through Europe and the U.S. In The Chion-in Temple Gate he utilized western perspective.
During the 20th century, Japanese printmaking split into two general directions: skilled artisans or solo artists. Working within the Japanese tradition of collaboration, individual, highly skilled artisans performed a specialized role: creating the design, carving the block, printing, and publishing. This was known as shin hanga. Other artists began making their own prints from start to finish. These works have been called “creative prints” or sōsaku hanga, which tended to be more experimental and a means of self-expression. Sekino belonged to the latter group.
As the oldest son there was the expectation for Sekino to follow his father who was a fertilizer wholesaler. At the age of four, the youngster created his first print. Sekino grew up in Aomori, which boasted successful figures in art and literature including Shikō Munakata. As a young boy, Sekino followed Munakata on sketching trips and offered to carry his art supplies. As a middle schooler, Sekino and his classmates put together a print magazine with Munakata as an occasional contributor.
Through Kon Junzō, Sekino gained new skills in Western print techniques, including lithography and etching. “Rather than say I was Kon Junzō’s pupil, it may be more appropriate to say that I learned lithography and etching by being around him, and bothering him often during his working hours in his studio,” recalled Sekino.i One of Sekino’s etchings was accepted into a government sponsored exhibition while one of his woodblock prints was accepted at the Fourth Japan Print Association Exhibition, both held in Tokyo in 1936. At age 24 he was invited to be a member of the Japan Print Association, and the artist went on to found the Japanese Etcher’s Society in 1963.
A turning point for Sekino was meeting Kōshirō Onchi, who greatly influenced his artistic development. Onchi was active in promoting sōsaku hanga. Sekino studied woodblock printing with him for several years. They remained friends for the rest of Onchi’s life. Sekino depicted Onchi in the first portrait he made, in 1941.
During WWII, the theaters were closed. Kabuki performers and Bunraku puppeteers would provide entertainment for troops or workers. While working in a factory in Tokyo, Sekino became acquainted with these stars of the theater, as well as poets and artists. His sketches evolved into finished printed portraits. The artist explained, “I was so moved by the composed faces with their deep age lines—those of accomplished men—that I started reading their biographies or written works, or saw some of them perform on the stage.”ii
Sekino owned an etching press after the war. While it was challenging to find paper and ink for artwork, he opened his home to interested artists, and they managed by pooling their rationed materials. This launched a generation of Japanese etchers. Sekino also taught in the U.S. at Oregon State University, the University of Oregon, and the University of Washington. He even had opportunities to work at the Tamarind Lithography Workshop.
Sekino became known for his large-scale portrait prints. In FWMoA’s Portrait of Munakata (1968), above, Sekino imparted much individuality and character to his mentor through the disheveled hair, stubble on his cheeks and chin, wrinkles, and thick, round glasses. He placed Munakata in front of the artist’s tour-de-force series, Ten Great Disciples of Buddha (1939). Upali (or Ubari) and Purnamaitrayaniputra (or Furuna), from left to right, tower above the artist’s head.
Our eye is drawn to Munakata’s wizened face that stands out against the background. The flat colors and bold contours of the disciples and the robe are more in keeping with Japanese print traditions. In contrast, the three-dimensional modeling of Munakata’s face is rendered more from a Western conception. Although his portrayal is highly descriptive, Sekino commented, “When the portrait is washed by the wave of history, the only thing that matters is the power of the portrait itself. Nobody knows now whether Sharaku’s portraits look like the actual models or not.”iii
Sekino also created a series focusing on architecture, especially close-up views of roofs. Blue Roofs (1970) is a bird’s eye view that focuses on geometry and pattern. Sekino moves even further towards pure abstraction in the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Hara: Roof Tile Reflections of Mount Fuji (1964), in which Mt. Fuji is inverted onto the roof surface reduced to repeated shapes and lines.
Sekino’s work is in multiple American collections, including the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and the National Gallery of Art.
i Robert and Yoko McClain, Thirty-Six Portraits by Sekino Jun’ichirō (Eugene, OR: University of Oregon Museum of Art, 1977), 6.
ii McClain, 10.
iii McClain, 11.