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Utamaro print showing


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HIRATSUKA Un'ichi (1895-1997)


Hiratsuka Hiratsuka kanji Hiratsuka Un'ichi (平塚運一), one of the pre-eminent figures in the sosaku hanga movement, was born in Matsue, Honshû. In 1913 he met the artist Ishii Hakutei (1882-1958), a western-style painter and printmaker who had published the first sosaku hanga print (Yamamoto Kanae's "Fisherman") in the magazine Myôjô in 1904. Ishii admired Hiratsuka's painting, and in 1915 the younger artist moved to Tokyo to continue his study with Ishii, who urged him to learn block carving and printing. He did so for about six months with Igami Bonkotsu (1875-1933), becoming the best-trained block carver in the sosaku hanga movement. Hiratsuka exhibited his first prints in 1916 at an exhibition of the independent Nika-kai ("Second Division Society"), and by the 1920s his reputation in the world of printmaking was considerable. It is likely that Hiratsuka had some influence upon nearly every important sosaku hanga artist. He taught sessions on woodblock printing in various parts of Japan, inspiring, among many students, the great Munakata Shikô, who learned to use the v-shaped chisel from Hiratsuka when they first met in 1928. Between 1935 and 1944 Hiratsuka taught the first blockprinting course at the Tokyo School of Fine Arts (Fumio Kitaoka and Okiie Hashimoto were among his students). In 1948 he established his own school in Tokyo. He moved to Washington D.C. in 1962, but ultimately returned to Japan in 1994. Hiratsuka was awarded the Order of Cultural Merit by the Japanese government in 1970, and in 1991, the Hiratsuka Un'ichi Print Museum was opened in Suzaka, Nagano Prefecture.

Hiratsuka's daughter, Keiko Hiratsuka Moore, has said that her father considered the dating and numbering of his prints to be a nuisance, a practice expected by western collectors, but not one that was compatible with his own views. At times, Hiratsuka, perhaps mischievously, randomly numbered some impressions or made up the size of editions. Thus we are faced with the possibility that impressions of Hiratsuka's prints may occasionally have misleading edition numbers. She also reports that typically her father rarely made more than a dozen or so of most of his designs. In contrast, Oliver Statler, who interviewed Hiratsuka, wrote in the mid-1950s that Hiratsuka's editions typically ran between 30 and 50 impressions. There are certainly known exceptions, such as one image of Saint Nichiren, intended for an edition of 10,000 in the manner of devotional Buddhist images (Hiratsuka was a serious collector of old Buddhist prints, some dating from the late Heian period, 898-1185), but reaching more like 1,475 impressions by Hiratsuka's death. At the opposite end of the range, Hiratsuka's design of the Lincoln Memorial to commemorate the 1975 visit to the U.S. of the emperor and empress of Japan was made in a single impression for the exclusive possession of the Imperial household. It appears that Hiratsuka often printed only as many copies of his works as were needed or requested over the years, so more research is needed to sort out the number of extant impressions for each of Hiratsuka's designs.

Hiratsuka_detail Hiratsuka's grandfather was an architect who designed houses and temples, and his father was a shrine carpenter, so the artist was introduced to wood-working and architecture early in his life. The figure on the top right depicts the Shôsôin at the Tôdai Temple in Nara, the famous 8th-century repository of Imperial treasures. Printed in 1958, it is a large-format work measuring approximately 80 x 61 cm.

Although he made full-color prints, Hiratsuka believed that the combination of black and white had a special and challenging beauty, and to be successful using only these two colors, an artist had to capture the rhythm of line and mass. White was not merely negative space, but a value equal to black, and each color had to harmonize with the other. To achieve this, Hiratsuka once said, "I make my black as intense as I can get it. My black ink is the very finest sumi from Kyoto, and I make impression after impression until the color seeps deep into the paper."

In Hiratsuka's portrayal of the Shôsôin, the stark contrast of the bright white paper and dense black, achieved through multiple printings, is complemented by a bold, receding perspective seen from a low vantage point. The overhanging roof runs right to the top edge of the image and the massive wooden beams jut out in evenly spaced, rhythmical horizontals. The mass of architectural and garden detail is further energized by Hiratsuka's characteristic carving, a technique he developed called tsukibori ("poking strokes") made with small square-end chisel (aisuki), rocking the blade side to side in short strokes. This produced rough, jagged edges that he used in selected areas of the design (see the detail of the column on the immediate right). Hiratsuka believed "This rough line came out of my search for greater strength and a feeling of solid mass." © 2001 by John Fiorillo


  • Jenkins, D.: Images of a Changing World: Japanese Prints of the Twentieth Century. Portland Art Museum, 1983, pp. 92-97.
  • Merritt, H., et al.: Hiratsuka: Modern Master. Art Institute of Chicago, 2001.
  • Merritt, Helen: Modern Japanese Woodblock Prints. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1990, pp. 200-210.
  • Smith, L.: Modern Japanese Prints 1912-1989. British Museum, 1994, pp. 24, 45-46, nos. 23-24.
  • Statler, Oliver: "Modern Japanese creative prints," in: Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. 11, No. 2 (Jul., 1955), p. 22(132).
  • Statler, Oliver: Modern Japanese Prints: An Art Reborn. Rutland & Tokyo: Tuttle, 1956, pp. 35-44, nos. 15-21.
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