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VJP title
Utamaro print showing


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SAITÔ Kiyoshi (1907-97)


Saito Saito kanji Saitô Kiyoshi (斎藤清) was born in Sakamoto, Fukushima prefecture. He studied Western-style painting at the Hongô Painting Institute and exhibited his oil paintings with various art groups and societies. After having a print accepted by the Kokugakai ("National Picture Association"), Saitô began to seriously pursue printmaking. In 1938 he issued his first prints in his now famous "Winter in Aizu" series. After steadily gaining recognition, he won first prize in 1951 at the Sao Paulo, Brazil international biennial exhibition for his print called "Steady Gaze," where it won over both prints and paintings. Saitô admired Piet Mondrian, and some of his views of buildings and temples seem to display that influence in their simplified forms. Saitô's prints have been especially popular in the west, although his works are appreciated in Japan as well.

Saitô worked primarily in the woodblock medium, while also producing works in collagraph, drypoint, and color and ink paintings (suiboku ga). He carved his images into blocks of various woods, either solid katsura or plywood faced with katsura, rawan, yanagi, keyaki, shina, or lauan, to obtain a wide range of textures. In some cases he used only one block for all the colors in a design, while for others he needed as many as 5 or 6 different blocks. He often used kizuki-hôsho ("genuinely-made hôsho," that is, the fine-quality paper made from kôzo, "Paper mulberry").

The print illustrated here is a portrait of a maiko or young geisha from Kyoto, a popular subject in modern Japanese prints and paintings. Saitô has simplified the forms to great effect and used the wood patterns to add texture and interest to his design. The wood-pattern background is especially dynamic and is also representative of the use by sosaku hanga artists of woodgrain (called mokumezuri, "grain printing"; see Wood Patterns and Making a Print). The maiko's white neck, considered an erotic feature, is made visible by the turn of her head. There is also an interesting ambiguity in the orientation of the maiko's torso and arms. The expressive circular sweep of the black robe as it spreads on the floor provides a decorative frame for the stylized wood-grained obi (sash), and it is punctuated by the careful placement of Saitô's artist seal and pencil signature in the large area of flat black on the left. Saitô created quite a few variations on the theme of the maiko, often bearing the same title but differentiated by letters or numbers in parentheses. The examples in numbered editions were often in large format with image sizes measuring around 24.0 x 18.0 inches. This example, however, does not have a title, but rather bears the annotation "(2)" in the lower margin, and is from an unlimited, undated edition with an image area measuring approximately 15.5 x 10.0 inches. © 1999-2001 by John Fiorillo


  • Harada, Minoru: The Life and Works of Kiyoshi Saito. Tokyo: Abe Shuppan, 1990.
  • Merritt, H. and Tamada, N.: Guide to Modern Japanese Woodblock Prints: 1900-1975. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1992, p. 129.
  • Petit, G. and Arboleda, A.: Evolving Techniques in Japanese Woodblock Prints. Tokyo: Kodansha, 1977, pp. 56 and 152.
  • Smith, L.: Modern Japanese Prints, 1912-1989. London: British Museum Press, 1994, pp. 59-60, plates 93 and 95.
  • Statler, O.: Modern Japanese Prints: An Art Reborn. Rutland VT: Tuttle, 1956, pp. 53-58 and 191-192, plates 29-36.
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