Maeda Tôshirô (前田藤四郎), 1904-1990, was born in Akashi City, Hyôgo prefecture, and lived for most of his life in Osaka. He graduated from the Kobe Higher Business School (Kôbe Kôtô Shôgyô Gakkô: 神戸高等商業学校) in 1927 and then worked as a commercial artist at the Matsuzaka-ya (松坂屋) in Osaka. The store began in 1611 selling kimono and lacquerware, but since 1910 it had been operating as a Western-style department store. In December 1927, Maeda was drafted into the military and joined the 39th Himeji Regiment. In 1928, while still enlisted, he managed to pick up some useful tips from Hiratsuka Un'ichi's 1927 book Hanga no gihô (Printmaking techniques: 版画の技法) and started making woodcuts by himself. Around this time, he also learned the technique of making linocuts, which became a major mode of printmaking throughout his life. In 1929 Maeda left the Matsuzaka-ya for Seiunsha (青雲社), an advertising printing shop in Senba, Osaka run by his brother-in-law, where Maeda was put in charge of graphic design. He also continued to produce linocuts and exhibited for the first time in 1929 at the "Spring Principle Association" (Shun'yôkai (春陽会 founded in 1922 to promote exhibitions in Western-style art). Amazingly, Maeda would go on to exhibit at the association every year until 1989. He left the printing shop in 1939 and then worked as a designer for Shionogi Pharmaceutical Company (塩野義製薬). During World War II, he was employed at the Northeast Asia Cultural Development Center in Manchuria (Manchukuo, or Manshûkoku, 満州国). After the war, Maeda adopted the life of an independent artist.
Except for the previously mentioned brief encounter with Hiratsuka's instruction book, Maeda was essentially self-taught in hanga (block prints: 版画), producing mature linocuts (rino katto: (リノカット) by the late 1920s and woodcuts by the 1930s. He also incorporated oil paints in his printmaking. While working at advertising design for Seiunsha from 1929 to 1939, Maeda would order overseas art magazines and art books, pouring over them for design ideas. He kept a huge scrapbook with images cut out from these sources, which served him in his printmaking.
A fascinating early example of linocut is shown below, a large work (450 x 710 mm) in bright colors titled "Rooftop Movement" (Okujô undô: 屋上運動) from 1931. For such an early work, it is sophisticated in its cutting and printing. Four muscular women exercise on the rooftop of the Senba Building, where the printing company Seiunsha was located. Given that he was clipping out images from Western magazines and books, it seems likely that this rather un-Japanese rendering of female forms, with their rudimentary chiaroscuro and athletic leaping about, must have been inspired by some of the material he was gathering and pasting into scrapbooks. The figures possess a near-mythic quality, although it is not likely that Maeda intended this portrayal to represent so grand a theme. Note, too, the cloud forms, which are stylized and seem to stretch out in a manner echoing the woman in the dark red skirt.
Occasionally, Maeda used both linocut and photoengraving for the same design, as well as combining linocut with woodcut. For the 1933 work titled Tokei (watch: 時計), Maeda used a copper-plate photoengraving for the watch and lino-blocks for the hands and surrounding details (see images below).
Maeda's experience in the Matsuzaka-ya and his familiarity with current fashions of the late 1920s and early 1930s drew him toward portrayals of the à la mode retailers of the day. In one example (see below), he depicted the proprietess of a women's hat store or millinery (fujin bôshi ten: 婦人帽子店) seated in the doorway while she waited for customers. Judging from the image, brightly colored feathered hats were all the rage. The architextural details match up with European, or perhaps more specifically, Parisian retail "palaces" famous for their offerings of trend-setting couture.
In a manner similar to the previous linocut, Maeda took up another example of modern day fashion, this time dresses in the Western mode (see below). His "Dress shop window" (Doresu shoppu no mado: ドレスショップの窓) depicts three manikins all dolled up in"flapper" dresses (straight and loose, leaving the arms bare, with a waistline at the hips and a hem anywhere from the calf to the knee). Placed between them are alternate materials in assorted colors. The store's fringed and tasseled curtains are virtually identical to those in the hat-store image shown above.
Another early print with fashion as its theme is shown below, the 1931 "Beautiful esprit" (Utsukushiki esupuri: 美しきエスプリ), an exceptional linocut demonstrating sophisticated use of the medium in a large double-ôban format (350 x 545 mm). A single white shoe is placed near a small elmwood chest (keyaki bako: 欅箱) filled with fashion accessories. The simulated woodgrain of the box is more than matched by the pattern of the table top, whose wavy lines come close to effecting a moiré pattern. The title of the print, "Beautiful esprit," might have been intended as a sales pitch (one could image it as a caption in a fashion advertisement today), perhaps announcing that the owner of such finery would be leading an exciting and spirited life. There is in this view, and perhaps in the previous two store-front images, a hint of gentle humor in the manner of their presentation, as if Maeda were saying, "Have some fun with this sort of thing, but don't take any of it too seriously."
Maeda contributed to some pre-war coterie magazines (dôjin zasshi: 同人雑誌), such as the radical, avant-garde "MAVO" in 1924-1925; "Woodpecker" (Kitsutsuki: きつつき, edited by Nakajima Jûtarô) in volume 3, June 1931 (the last of three total issues); and "Print Art" (Han geijutsu: 版芸術, edited by Ryôji Chômei, 料治潮鳴) volume 4, July 1932. Maeda also provided a design for the collaborative series "Views of New Japan" (Shin Nihon hyakkei: 新日本百景), which was self-published by members of the Japan Print Association (Nihon Hanga Kyôkai: 日本洋画協会) from December 1938 to June 1941. The prints by 33 different artists (six produced two designs each) were released in groups of three at irregular intervals for a total of 39 prints, edited by Fujimori Shizuo (nos. 1 to 9) and Maekawa Senpan (nos. 10 to 39). Maeda's woodcut, "Round Moon Island at Shirahama" (Shirahama Engetsu-tô: 白浜円月島), appeared as no. 35 in November 1940 (see image below).
Shirahama (白浜) is a resort town on the south coast of Japan’s Wakayama (和歌山) prefecture. It’s known for its hot springs and quartz-sand beach, and just off its coast, Takashima (高嶋), more commonly called Engetsu Island (Engetsu-tô: 円月島), a small island with a natural arch whose hole in the middle has been nicknamed "Engetsu" (full moon: 円月). Today, the largely sandstone arch is in danger of collapse. Since July 2009, the Shirahama town government has cautioned against approaching the island due to that risk. In Maeda's design, the arch is visible offshore. The purple shadows cast by the hillside and the motor vehicle are not only unusual in their color, but also complement the chromatic choices that Maeda made for the horizon and Full Moon Island.
Some of Maeda's late prints are admired for their surrealistic style. In this regard, the works of the German artist Max Ernst (1891-1976) were especially influential. This was a time when the influence of Surrealism from the West had taken hold in Japan from the late Taishô era (1912-1926) to the early Showa era (1926-1989). Especially after the "Paris-Tokyo New Art Exhibition" (Pari-Tokyo shinkô bijutsu ten: 巴里東京新興美術展) held in 1932 (116 works by 56 artists shown in Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Nagoya, Kanagawa, and Kumamoto), the surrealist movement in Japan became widely popular in literature, art, and photography. This continued until around 1940 when wartime restrictions against the avant garde were tightened. After the war, a few Japanese artists continued to incorporate surrealist elements in some of their works. A potent example of surrealist influence upon Maeda is shown at the top of this page in a large linocut (710 x 450 mm) titled "Aerial acrobatics" (Kûchû kyokugi: 空中曲技). Eyes that are drawn in a jarring, surreal, anatomical manner appear in the lower part of the image, looking up, riveted on the performer. The acrobat balances on a wooden pedestal, the tip of its pole painfully evident in the small of her back. (Presumably, she is protected by a pad at the point of contact.) Not only are the glaring eyes disturbing, but it is as if they could be our own—nerves, blood vessels, lenses, and eyelashes.
Occasionally Maeda would venture into explorations of abstraction. In a 1959 linocut titled "Older Teenager M" (Haitein M: ハイティーンM), he combined geometric forms with dramatic woodgrain patterns. Some of the elements recall the abstractions of Onchi Kôshirô, although Maeda was never a disciple of that master. Even so, he seems to have borrowed from Onchi's visual vocabulary, in particular, the full circles, offsetting semi-circles, and vertical bands of color. Another possible source might have been some of the early European abstract artists or practitioners of surrealism. Maeda's work, in particular, demonstrates his brilliant skills in linocut technique.
Before World War II, Maeda favored traditional subject matter and forms, but post-war, he increasingly leaned toward simplification and introduced fewer strictly representational works, again influenced by Western abstraction in the arts. One of Maeda's boldest landscapes is Yoroidake ("Armor Peak": 鎧岳), located near Soni village (曽爾村) in Nara Prefecture (奈良県). In this linocut from 1965, Maeda reduced the mountain, hills, and trees to geometric shapes, adding textures, linear striations, and small pebbled shapes, all placed beneath a uniformly somber yellow sky. The linocut technique was especially well suited for rendering such forms, which Maeda accomplished here in expert fashion. The arrangement of shapes does indeed suggest the influence of abstraction, currently in vogue in the West during the 1960s and practiced as well by some of the sôsaku hanga ("creative print": 創作版画) artists, especially Onchi Kôshirô and Yamaguchi Gen. There has also been a tendency (arguably even a historical tradition) among many Japanese artists to seek out reduction toward essential forms in their later works.
The inspirational leader of the sôsaku hanga movement, Onchi Kôshirô, in his Contemporary Japanese Prints (Nihon no gendai hanga: 日本の現代版畫) published in 1953, wrote that Maeda was one of the few artists who used oil paints in printmaking and that he was the only [sic] artist to also use linocut. (The last point was not entirely accurate; see Maekawa Senpan's series "Outdoor sketches": Yagai shohin," 野外小品.) In assessing Maeda's oeuvre Onchi said, "His work has a cosmopolitan sense, and it conveys a bright cultural flavor. His colors are cheerful and flamboyant, but are curbed by a certain sense of elegance and restraint."
Public collections with works by Maeda Tôshirô include the Art Institute of Chicago; British Museum, London; Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; Honolulu Museum of Art; Museum of Modern Art, NY; National Museum of Art, Osaka; National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto; National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo; Nerima Art Museum, Tokyo; Osaka City Museum of Art; and Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.