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-carved and self-printed woodcut portrait known as Gyofu (”Fisherman”: 漁夫) by Yamamoto Kanae ( 1882-1946), which was featured in the magazine Myôjo (Morning Star: 明星) 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 included 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 period from 1904 through the late 1950s was an especially fruitful and invigorating time for sosaku hanga artists (excluding the Second World War, of course), but when more widespread international recognition was finally achieved during the first two decades after the War, 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 print 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. Most sôsaku hanga artists saw printmaking as an elemental and highly personal creative act, not one to be shared with artisans. Many selected their papers, prepared the blocks (not always made of wood), cut, carved, or engraved their designs, mixed the pigments, printed the images, and sold or marketed the prints. (Occasionally these artists would indeed collaborate with artisans, but nearly always they carved their own blocks even when they did not print the designs for particular projects or editions.) 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 that very eclecticism made the movement so vital before and for a brief time after the Second World War. © 1999-2020 by John Fiorillo
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