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Utamaro print showing

 

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Azechi Umetarô (畦地梅太郎)
1902-99

 
Azechi 1940 Yawatahama

Azechi Umetarô (畦地梅太郎 1902-99) 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 but continuing with the art course. After the devastating 1923 earthquake, he had little choice but to leave ravaged Tokyo and return home, but managed to move back to big city in 1925 to 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" (馬楝) or print-rubbing tool. Around 1931, when he was denied a bonus, Azechi quit his job and eked out a living as a free-lance artist. He somehow managed, 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. 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 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) in 1924 (he joined the association in 1932), where Azechi eventually met many other Japanese artists, but it was Onchi who proved to be his greatest influence. Onchi encouraged Azechi to rely upon his own experience in the pursuit of art and life as an artist.

Azechi's prints from the 1920s-30s 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 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 (30 x 39 cm), 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.

Azechi 1940 Nikko

An example from the 1940 series of mountains is shown immedaitely 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'ichrô also dated a few of his works in this manner, although he sometimes added the corresponding year "1940" as well.

Azechi: Old man from the mountain hut, 1953 Azechi: Old man from the mountain hut, 1958

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. He also gained some renown in Japan as an essayist on the subject. An accomplished mountaineer, Azechi led a vigorous outdoor lifestyle well into his nineties.

Yamamoto fishmanThe 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.

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). Slightly larger (62 x 43 cm) than the mountain man from the hut, this designwas 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 adopted within a four or five-year period

Over the course of his career, Azechi's prints bridged the gap between representational and entirely abstract sôsaku hanga (creative prints: 創作版画). 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." © 2001-2019 by John Fiorillo

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • Azechi Umetarô: Japanese Woodblock Prints: Their Techniques and Appreciation. Tokyo and Rutland, VT: Toto Shuppan Co., 1963.
  • Fuchû Art Museum (府中市美術館): Ki hanga no nukumori Kobayashi Kiyochika kara Munakata Shikô made (The warmth of woodblock prints: From Kobayashi Kiyochika to Munakata Shikô: 木版画のぬくもり小林消親から棟方志功まで). 2005, p. 92, no. 133.
  • Jenkins, D.: Images of a Changing World: Japanese Prints of the Twentieth Century. Portland Art Museum, 1983, pp. 104-105, nos. 84-85.
  • Merritt, Helen: Modern Japanese Woodblock Prints. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1990, pp. 234-35.
  • Smith, L.: The Japanese Prints since 1900: Old Dreams and New Visions. London: British Museum, 1983, pp. 104, 118.
  • Smith, L.: Modern Japanese Prints 1912-1989. British Museum, 1994, p. 22, and plates 87-90.
  • Statler, Oliver: Modern Japanese Prints: An Art Reborn. Rutland & Tokyo: Tuttle, 1956, pp. 136-141 and 199, nos. 74-76.
  • Uhlenbeck, C., Reigle-Newland, A., de Vries, M.: Waves of renewal: modern Japanese prints, 1900 to 1960. Leiden: Hotei Publishing, 2016, pp. 285290, nos. 248-260.
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