Mabuchi Tôru (馬淵聖 1920-94) was born in Tokyo, the son of Mabuchi Rokutarô, a wood-engraver and later commercial artist who was a pioneer in the airbrush technique, teaching himself through reading books published in France and the U.S. Frustrated at not becoming an artist himself, Rokutarô did all that he could to promote his son's interest in fine art.
Tôru (who romanized his given name as Thoru) initially learned wood engraving from his father. Later, he studied in the craft design section of the Tokyo School of Fine Arts in Ueno, graduating in 1941. Although the course included oil painting and drawing, it was focused primarily on the decorative and applied arts. Nevertheless, Mabuchi continued working on printmaking, even exhibiting in major shows. He also attended one of the print classes given by Hiratsuka Un'ichi. Mabuchi told Oliver Statler, that, "I sketch in oils, watercolors, and pastels but I've never exhibited anything but prints, and I think of myslef as a print artist.
Upon graduation, he was conscriptied into the army in December 1941, with an assignment to a regiment guarding the Imperial Palace. When the militrary administrators learned of his skills in art, they directed him to make maps and charts. Thus he never carried a rifle and remained in Tokyo for the duration of the war.
In the years following the war, Mabuchi became active in the art societies of the time, exhibiting works with the Zôkei Hanga Kyôkai (Formative Print Association). He was a member of the Nihon Hanga Kyôkai (Japan Print Association) from 1954 to 1960, when he then joined the newly formed Nipponkai (Japan Print Society). More than two decades later, in 1982, he rejoined the Nihon Hanga Kyôkai. Mabuchi also taught at Hiroshima University.
When, after the war, he took over his father's business, he had the financial security to perfect the intricate printmaking technique for which he is best known. This approach developed from his interest in Byzantine mosaics and the pointillist paintings of Georges Seurat (1859-91). Mabuchi cuts small pieces of very thin wood that he glues to a board in a mosaic-like pattern. " I started," he told Statler, "by attempting the pointillist technique of juxtaposing spots of primary colors, but it didn't work, so I fell back on the mosaic effect." He would make several blocks for a design and once assembled, would printed in the traditional way. However, because he did not entirely carve the blocks, judges at official Japnese exhibitions would often argue about whether they were acceptable as "prints" in the conventional Japanese mode, although they seem to have always relented.
In Mabuchi's most elaborate works, there were as many as 30 to 50 printing stages from multiple blocks, thus his labor-intensive production was relatively small. His early theme was the landscape, but he went on to include still life and the prehistoric haniwa () pottery figures of Japan. Mabuchi considered his art thoroughly Japanese, He said, "I want to do something that only a Japanese can do, something rooted in Japanese tradition.... Art is universal, but each country should have its own expression, and I want to contribute to Japan's."
The still life shown above is titled "Persimmon and Western Pear" (Kaki to yônashi: 柿と洋梨) with a date of 1962 and an edition number of 53/100. The image size is 562 x 407 mm on paper measuring 620 x 471 mm. The red oval seal in the right margin reads "Tobin" (杜品), the mark of the notable collector James D. Tobin. In this example, Mabuchi's mosaic technique is on full view, although it is accompanied by conventional block carving, particularly in the rendering of the pear at the lower left. Mabuchi, in seeking and developing a new technique for his hanga, exemplified the credo of mid-twentieth-century sôsaku hanga, which was to seek out one's individual response to the art of the print, even if that discovery required a break from the past.
© 2019 by John Fiorillo
- Merritt, H. and Yamada, N.: Guide to Modern Japanese Woodblock Prints: 1900-1975. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1992, p. 82.
- Smith, L.: Modern Japanese Prints, 1912-1989. London: British Museum Press, 1994, pp. 59-60, plate 119 and p. 63.
- Statler, O.: Modern Japanese Prints: An Art Reborn. Rutland VT: Tuttle, 1956, pp. 172-75, plates 99-100.