Azechi Umetarô (畦地梅太郎 1902-1999) was born in Ehime Prefecture in Shikoku where his family were farmers in the village of Futana (present-day Uwajima City). He first studied oil painting by correspondence course. In 1920 he moved to Tokyo, delivering newspapers to make a living but continuing with the art course. After the devastating 1923 Great Kantô earthquake, he had little choice but to leave ravaged Tokyo and return home. He managed to move back to big city in 1925 where he found work in a government printing office.
Azechi began making prints by scratching out designs with nails and knives on soft lead plates, inking them, and using a teacup as a "baren" (print-rubbing tool: 馬楝) to impress the image onto paper. Around 1931, when he was denied a bonus at the government office, Azechi quit his job and eked out a living as a free-lance artist. He somehow managed to survive, occasionally by carving and printing designs by other artists including Maekawa Senpan (前川千帆 1888-1960) and Onchi Kôshirô (恩地孝四郎 1891-1955), and by producing designs for book and newspaper illustrations. He also continued to make oil paintings.
His own earliest prints were typically cityscapes influenced by Hiratsuka Un'ichi (平塚運一 1895-1997), whom he sought out and befriended. Hiratsuka encouraged him to switch from lead plates to woodblocks for his prints, and he supported Azechi's entrance into art exhibitions, such as those held by the Nihon Sôsaku Hanga Kyôkai (Japan Creative Print Association: 日本創作版画協会) from 1927, the Shun'yôkai (Spring Principle Association: 春陽会) from 1928, and the Kokugakai (National Picture Association: 国画会) from 1943. Azechi eventually met many other Japanese artists, but it was Onchi who proved to be his greatest influence. Onchi advised him to think about the meaning and function of art and the artist and to search for the essence of his own experience and to trust his innermost feelings. [Merritt, Modern Japanese Woodblock Prints, 1990] As a result, Azechi struck out along his own path, gradually evolving as an artist until his prints were unlike those of any other Japanese artist. All along, he remained true to the credo of the sôsaku hanga ("creative print": 創作版画) movement: jiga, jikoku, jizuri ("self-drawn, self-carved, self-printed": 自画 自刻 自摺).
Azechi's prints from the 1920s and 1930s often featured cityscapes and landscapes. His early landscape style is perhaps best represented by two series, the portfolio of 10 prints titled Iyo fûkei (Landscapes of Iyo: 伊予風景) from 1936 (issued in 30 impressions each) and in the group titled simply Yama (Mountains: 山) from 1940, the latter characterized by more severe forms and sombre colors. One example from the Iyo fûkei portfolio is shown above, a view of Yawatahama minato (Port at Yawatahama: 八幡浜湊) that reveals Hiratsuka's influence. It is a relatively small print (300 x 390 mm), but highly effective in depicting with simple forms and colors the natural-harbor port town of Yawatahama known as the "western gateway to Shikoku," in Ehime prefecture bordering the Uwa Sea. The curve of the horizon line encourages a sense of depth in what would otherwise be a flattened perspective.
An example from the 1940 series of mountains is shown immediately above. Titled Nikko no yama (Mountains at Nikko: 日光の山), it is typical of Azechi's approach toward distant landscape views. Here, the palette is more restrained than in the Iyo fûkei portfolio, without the bright yellows and blues found in the Yawatahama minato landscape. The forms remain simple, although the texturing and shading seem a bit more complex. The print is dated "2600" in honor of an important anniversary of Jinmu-tennô's (神武天皇) enthronement, the first emperor of Japan. The artist Sekino Jun'ichirô also dated a few of his works in this manner, although he sometimes added the corresponding year "1940" as well.
After World War II, Azechi developed his distinctive style of using simplified forms and flat areas of color, usually portraying mountains and yama-otoko (mountain men: 山男), subjects for which he is best known. The examples shown immediately above for one of Azechi's yama-otoko designs illustrate two separate editions with very different results. Titled Yama goya no rôjin (Old man from the mountain hut: 山小屋の老人), it is a large print on paper measuring about 54 x 36 cm. The earliest (on the left), from 1953, is subdued in color and printed in a rough, expressive manner. The later edition (on the right) has a brighter palette and a more polished surface. Azechi, in some of his works starting from the mid- to late-1950s, began to experiment with this more "sophisticated" manner of printing in a heightened key. Perhaps he was distancing himself from the textured or emotive printing of his mentor Onchi Kôshirô.
Frequently, Azechi rendered his yama-otoko as figurative abstracts. In 1957, just before the second edition of the previous Yama goya no rôjin design, Azechi completed another portrayal of a mountain man, this one titled Furikaeru otoko (Mountain climber looking back: 振り返る男); see image at right. Slightly larger (62 x 43 cm) than the mountain man from the hut, this design was reduced to essentials, with flat, black geometrical shapes defining the climber's body. The simplification of the human form is printed, again, in a polished manner. It is startling how much abstraction Azechi introduced into his designs within a four or five-year period
Over the course of his career, Azechi's prints bridged the gap between the purely representational print genres and the entirely abstract sôsaku hanga. Among these woodcuts, those in which the human figure has been reduced to highly stylized shapes come across as rugged, uncomplicated, and humorous — they have a direct and at times totemic appeal. Indeed, Azechi once said that he liked "simple, rustic work" and disliked "slickness or sophistication."
Azechi was a member of print and art societies, including the Nihon Hanga Kyôkai (Japan Print Association: 日本洋画協会) from 1932 and the aforementioned Kokugakai from 1943. He also contributed prints to several collaborative projects, such as four of the six collections of the Ichimokushû ("First Thursday Collection," vols. 1-4, 1944, 1946-48) issued by the Ichimokukai: ("First Thursday Society": 一木会), the group of sôsaku hanga artists who gathered monthly at Onchi Kôshirô's home. Other projects included the print collections Tokyo kaiko zue (Recollections of Tokyo: 東京回顧圖會) and Shin Tokyo hyakkei (One Hundred Views of New Tokyo: 新東京百景). He contributed as well to various dôjin zasshi (coterie magazines: 同人雑誌), including all eight issues of Han ("Print": 版) in 1928-1929, and the first two of three issues of Kitsutsuki ("Woodpecker": きつつき) in 1930.
In regard to his initial encounter with the Ichimokukai, Azechi recalled: "In those days, anyone submitting prints for the exhibition took them to Kôshirô Onchi’s home, for Onchi was the guiding spirit of the association. I went there, and the man who answered the door was Gen Yamaguchi (山口源 1896-1976). That was when he was serving a sort of discipleship to Onchi and helping as handyman during the exhibitions. So the first print artist I met was Hiratsuka, the second Yamaguchi, and the third, Onchi. All became my friends." Azechi also said, "I'm grateful to Hiratsuka for his initial encouragement and his steady support all through the years. Maybe without him I wouldn't be an artist today. As for my work, the greatest influence was Onchi, and my simplified style today owes most to him."
Azechi gained some renown in Japan as an essayist on mountaineering. An accomplished climber, he led a vigorous outdoor lifestyle well into his nineties. In 1963 he wrote and designed the book Japanese Woodblock Prints: Their Techniques and Appreciation for the publisher Toto Shuppan Co., in Tokyo (English edition by Tuttle in Vermont). Today, the volume remains a collectible.
In 2003, Azechi's legacy was put on full view when the Azechi Umetarô Kinen Bijutsukan (Azechi Umetarô Memorial Museum: 畦地梅太郎記念美術館) was established in the artist's home town of Uwajima City, Ehime Prefecture. The Azechi gallery houses about 400 of the artist's works, including prints, paintings, and drawings. It also features a reconstruction of his studio, along with his tools and printing blocks. The museum offers about four exhibitions each year.
Azechi's prints can be found in many private and various public collections, including the Achenbach Foundation, Museum of Fine Arts, San Francisco; Art Institute of Chicago; British Museum, London; Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, PA; Cincinnati Art Museum; Machida City Museum of Graphic Art, Tokyo; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; and National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo. © 2001-2021 by John Fiorillo