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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'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), 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 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 Merrit (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 frequntly 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 unfettered responses to the prints. He had solo exhibitions in Los Angeles in 1950 and Paris in 1952, winning international acclaim. 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 Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; the Cincinnati Art Museum; the Fine Art Museums of San Francisco; and the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo.

The image shown above, signed Gajin (雅人), 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. Kôsaka's design measures 520 x 695 mm 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 watcolor. 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.


  • 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.
  • 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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