Sôsaku Hanga (creative prints, 創作版画 — see Links below) was a term used as early as 1909 by the printmaker Ishii Hakutei (1882-1958) in the Encyclopedia of Liberal Arts (Bungei hyakka zensho). The seminal work in the sosaku hanga movement was a self-engraved and self-printed woodblock portrait of a fisherman by Yamamoto Kanae (1882-1946), which was featured in the magazine Morning Star (Myôjo) in 1904. As the movement grew in size and influence, various short-lived magazines and clubs supported and published sosaku hanga, and then in 1918 the "Japanese Creative Print Society" (Nihon sôsaku hanga kyôkai) was formed, becoming the principal organization for creative print makers until its dissolution in 1931 and its rebirth into a more comprehensive print association called the Japan Print Cooperative Society (Nihon hanga kyôkai).
The most significant figures in the early sosaku hanga movement were Kôshirô Onchi (1891-1955), Hiratsuka Un'ichi (1895-1997), and Shikô Munakata (1903-1975), but there were a large number of innovative artists, many of whom entered the movement as students of these masters. The 1920s through the late 1950s were especially fruitful and invigorating times for sosaku hanga artists (excepting the Second World War, of course), but when international recognition was finally achieved during the 1950s-60s, the cohesiveness of the movement, always somewhat in flux, weakened as artists and their works won increased recognition and were collected outside of Japan. Today, despite the application of the term sosaku hanga (by dealers especially) to a diverse number of modern Japanese printmakers, it is difficult, and perhaps impossible, to find the same spirit of groundbreaking inventiveness coupled with group identity to match what existed in the pre-War years. Nevertheless, Japanese artists continue working in a creative-print manner, and a few still exhibit some degree of diffuse influence from the early sosaku hanga masters.
For the early sosaku hanga artists, the process of "reproduction prints" (fukusei hanga) was anathema, and many believed that the neo-ukiyo-e revival of shin hanga was one such type of reproductive printmaking. Sôsaku hanga artists saw printmaking as an elemental and highly personal creative act, not one to be shared with other artisans. They selected their paper, prepared their own blocks (not always made of wood), cut, carved, or engraved their designs, mixed the pigments, printed the images, and marketed the prints. Their work was a blend of traditional Japanese aesthetics strongly influenced by international trends in art, especially European methods of painting and printmaking. The result was an eclectic and individualized approach to print design, quite different from the shin hanga movement that extolled the virtues of the traditional separation of printmaking functions (the so-called "ukiyo-e quartet" involving the artist, block cutter, printer, and publisher). The personal and experimental nature of sosaku hanga makes it difficult to group the prints into easily identifiable categories, yet it is that very eclecticism which made the movement so vital before and for a brief time after the Second World War. ©1999-2004 by John Fiorillo
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