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VJP title
Utamaro print showing

 

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KÔSAKA Gajin (上坂雅人)

 

Kôsaka Gajin (上坂雅人 1877-1953), whose personal name was Kôsaka Masayuki, was born in Kyoto in 1877. He became an elementary school teacher in 1901, and not long after, studied Japanese-style painting (Nihonga 日本画) with Konô Bairei (幸野楳嶺 1844-95) and Yamamoto Shunkyo (山元春挙 1871-1933). He moved to Tokyo in 1907, where he studied Western-style painting (yôga 洋画) at the institutes of the Hakubakai Yôga Kenkyûsho (White Horse Western Painting Institute) and the Taiheiyôgakai Kenkyûsho (Pacific Western-style Art Society Institute). Even so, he earned his living by working in a commercial embroidery business.

Kosaku Gajin
Kôsaka Gajin: Matsushima (松島), 1924, paper: 600 x 887 mm

Kôsaka frequently left his works untitled, referring to many late prints as "intuitive images." Moreover, he apparently wanted to avoid limiting the imaginations of his viewers, allowing them to experience their own unbiased responses to the prints. The image shown above, signed Gajin (雅人) at the lower right, depicts the famous pine trees at Matsushima (松島), considered one of Japan's "Three Great Sights" (Nihon sankei, 日本三景). The area comprises around 260 small, pine-covered islands. In keeping with the subject, Kôsaka's design is in large format — a 520 x 695 mm image on paper that is 600 x 887 mm. Unlike most of his late works, Kôsaka happened to inscribe a title on this work. In any case, the effect is surprisingly like a monochrome watercolor. The reduction of the scene to basic forms suggests an elemental interpretation of a famous view (meisho, 名所), while the subtle inking of the upper reaches of the trees captures the effect of sunlight passing through the spaces between branches and pine needles. The overall impact is indeed very much like the abstract expressionist paintings championed in the West during the 1950s-60s.

Kôsaka's first woodcuts date from 1922, when he began to exhibit with the Nihon Sôsaku Hanga Kyôkai (Japanese Creative Print Association), Kokugakai (National Picture Association: 国画会), and other hanga (block print, 版画) groups. His works at this time were representational landscapes done somewhat in the manner of Hiratsuka Un'ichi (平塚運一 1895-1997). Also in the 1920s, the print artist Okayama Gihachirô (奥山儀八郎 1907-81) was his student. Kôsaka was hired in 1931 by the Ministry of Education as an advisor on art pedagogy. During the 1930s Kôsaka exhibited with the Zôkei Hanga Kyôkai (Formative Print Association), where he befriended the artist Matsuo Jun’ichirô (1904-45), who would influence Kôsaka's later printmaking methodology.

In 1945 Kôsaka's Tokyo home and all his prints were destroyed during an allied forces' bombing raid, forcing him to evacuate to Sendai in northern Honshû. After the war, he changed his art name to Gajin (雅人). Once in Honshû, Kôsaka modified his approach to printmaking from his earlier traditional sôsaku hanga mode to a more personal and expressive style. He began printing from blocks carved with soft outlines on unsized, very wet paper in a monochrome "blurred effect" manner. This technique is said to have originated with the aforementioned Matsuo Jun’ichirô. Helen Merritt (Modern Japanese Woodblock Prints, pp. 249-50) wrote that "... he began to carve large simplified images on generous sheets of plywood ... beveled the edges of his forms to avoid sharp lines. Inking the block with sumi, he printed by laying lightly sized and heavily dampened paper over it and rubbing gently with the baren while adding water from the back with a large brush. When appropriate, he absorbed excess water with unprinted newspaper. The print image in graded tones of black and gray suggests both sumi-e and abstract expressionism."

Kôsaka Gajin: Fukkô no Ginza-gai (Reconstruction of Ginza street: 复古の銀座街), 1924, paper: 163 x 120 mm

The example above is one of Kôsaka's small-format (163 x 120 mm) early works from the 1920s made soon after the terrible Kantô Earthquake of September 1, 1923 devastated Tokyo, Yokohama, and the surrounding region, traumatizing the nation. Seventy percent of all structures were destroyed. What followed was a six-year reconstruction project on a massive scale that included kukaku seiri ( land readjustment: 区画整理) to redevelop devastated parts of the city. Of the 18.7 million square meters designated as residential land before readjustment, the post-readjustment total amounted to 15.8 million square meters, meaning the total reduction of residential land amounted to roughly 2.9 million square meters. Much of this land was used for roads, sidewalks, small parks, and social welfare facilities in Tokyo. Of course, artists of the period were keen observers of the restoration effort, one of them being Kôsaku Gajin. In his 1924 .Fukkô no Ginza-gai (Reconstruction of Ginza street: 复古の銀座街), we are shown the back of a worker standing within a area undergoing a layering of new bricks or cobblestones. The billowing smoke from a factory chimney at the far right signals that the Ginza district was already returning to normal activities.

Kôsaka had solo exhibitions in Los Angeles in 1950 and Paris in 1952, winning international acclaim. After his death, a memorial exhibition in Europe and America followed in 1956. Today, prints by Kôsaka not already in public collections are scarce and difficult to acquire. Institutions with his works include the British Museum, London; Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; the Cincinnati Art Museum; the Fine Art Museums of San Francisco; and the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo. © 2020 by John Fiorillo

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • Catalogue of Collections [Modern Prints]: The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo (Tokyo kokuritsu kindai bijutsukan shozô-hin mokuroku, 東京国立近代美術館所蔵品目録). 1993, nos. 1315-21.
  • Helen Merritt, Modern Japanese Woodblock Prints: The Early Years. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1990, pp. 249-50.
  • Helen Merritt and Nanako Yamada, Guide to Modern Japanese Woodblock Prints, 1900-1975. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1992.
  • Sakai, Tetsuo et al.: Mô hitotsu no Nihon bijutsushi kin gendai hanga no meisaku 2020 (Another History of Japanese Art: Masterpieces of Modern and Contemporary Prints 2020: もうひとつの日本美術史近現代版画の名作2020). Fukushima Prefectural Museum of Art and Museum of Modern Art, Wakayama, 2020, p. 146 no. 8-12.
  • Alicia Volk, Made in Japan: The Postwar Creative Print Movement. University of Washington Press: Milwaukee Art Museum, 2005, pp. 83 & 111.
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