Nagase Yoshirô (永瀬義郎), born in Ibaraki prefecture, studied Western-style painting (yôga: 洋画) at the teaching institute operated by "White Horse Society" (Hakubakai: 白馬会). His instructor there was Nagahara Kôtarô (長原孝太郎 1864-1930), a former pupil of Kuroda Seiki (黒田清輝 1866-1924). In 1910, Nagase was accepted into the sculpture section of the Tokyo School of Fine Arts (Tokyo Bijutsu Gakkô: 東京美術学校), but soon transferred to the Kyoto City Specialist School of Painting (Kyoto-shiritsu Kaiga Senmon Gakko: 京都市立繪畫專門學校), where he had private lessons in Japanese-style painting (Nihonga: 日本画) with the Shijô-school (Shijô-ha: 四条派) artist Araki Jippo (荒木十畝 1872-1944). Another source of inspiration was the work of the Norwegian Edvard Munch (1863-1944), whose oeuvre Nagase knew from reproductions in the seminal art magazine "White Birch" (Shirakaba: 白樺), published from 1910 to 1923. Nagase once said, "As I poured over the Shirakaba magazines, I became fascinated by Munch's prints, and this inspired me to create prints. This was the direct motivation for me."
In 1912, together with fellow artists Hasegawa Kiyoshi (長谷川潔 1891-1980) and Hiroshima Shintarô (広島新太郎 1889-1951, later called Koho, 晃甫), Nagase published "Holy Chalice" (Seihai: 聖盃), an important early avant-garde-art coterie magazine (dôjin zasshi: 同人雑誌), which changed its name to Kamen ("Mask": 仮面) in 1913 and published only four issues until 1915. It appears that Nagase's career as printmaker began with his recutting of Vallotton’s Villiers de L’Isle-Adam for the back cover of Seihai (vol 2, no 5, June 1913). The artists contributing to this magazine were among the first to give shape to the sôsaku hanga ("creative prints": 創作版画) movement, and they organized the first exhibitions. Other dôjin zasshi also published Nagase's work, which appeared, for example, in the sixth and twelfth issues of HANGA (June 1925 and October 1927), and the third issue of "Print Club" (Hanga CLUB: 版画 CLUB) in May 1929. That same month, Nagase set sail for Paris where lived until his return to Japan in early 1936. He remained active thereafter in Japan until his death in 1978, producing woodcuts, stencil prints, lithographs, mixed media (woodblock & stencil; woodblock & silkscreen), and monotypes.
Nagase was a member (sometimes a founding member) of several leading print organizations, such as the Creative Print Association (Nihon Sôsaku Hanga Kyôkai: 日本創作版画協会 est. 1918), National Painting Creation Association (Koguka Sôsaku Kyôkai: 国画創作協会 est. 1918), and Japan Print Association (Nihon Hanga Kyôkai: 日本洋画協会 est. 1931). In 1922 Nagase published his influential instruction manual on woodcarving techniques, "To People Who Want to Make Prints" (Hanga o tsukuru hito e: 版画を作る人へ), which numbered 231 pages (see cover above right). This treatise was the catalyst for jump-starting the printmaking careers of artists such as Taninaka Yasunori and Kanamori Yoshio (金守世士夫 1922-2016).
Nagase's early work for Kamen has been described as "expressionistic," whereas his later works took a turn toward lyricism, fanciful figurative abstraction, or pure abstraction. One of the more admired designs from Kamen is shown at the top of this page, a woodcut titled "Spring" (Haru: 春) published in 1915 (volume 4, no. 5). The female figure, seen in silhouette against a blazing sun, strikes an exuberant dance pose in celebration of the season. The rough block cutting and monochromatic inking are reminiscent of the German Expressionist school of printmaking. In fact, Nagase's design appeared about a year after the famous exhibition of Expressionist woodblock prints organized by the German art and literary magazine Der Sturm ("The Storm") at Tokyo’s Hibiya Art Museum in March 1914.
In 1928 Nagase produced an notable woodcut of a nude titled "Hair" (Kami: 髪) that was printed in glowing yellow (gold-dust) set against a dark blue background. Nagase used a technique combining woodcut and stencil to achieve a low-relief print. The original folder for the work included the artist's name and title, plus the name of the publisher, "Atelier Association first-distribution work" (Kôbô Renmei Daiikkai Hanpu Sakuhin: 工房聯盟第一回頒布). There was a later edition of 200 printed on black paper with the edition numbers penciled in by the artist. A very similar design of a nude by Nagase produced with the same technique is titled "A Light," although it is smaller in size (220 x 180 mm); an impression is in the Chiba City Museum of Art (see Ajioka 2000 ref., pp. 67 and 108 below).
Immediately upon arriving in Paris in May 1929, Nagase embarked on a series of six woodcuts titled "Journey through the Orient" (Tôyô no tabi: 東洋の旅), the first of which he completed late in 1929, and the others in 1930. As money was an issue for Nagase at this time, he prearranged to sell the prints through subscription to buyers back home in Japan. The designs were: (1) "Observing Shanghai" (Shanghai shoken: 上海所見); (2) "Enjoying Hong Kong at Night" (Honkon yaru go: 香港夜娛); (3) "Malay Beauty" (Maré bijin: マレー美人); (4) "Dance of Shiva" (Shiba no odori: シバの踊り); (5) Sunset at Suez" (Suezu no nichibotsu: スエズの日没); and (6) Pyramid (Piramiddo: ピラミッ ド). Three of these woodcuts were landscapes with figures (nos. 2, 5-6) and three were figure prints (1, 3-4). Impressions of all these designs nearly always have "à Paris" inscribed in the margins. The view of Hong Kong at night (see below) depicts a couple seen in silhouette standing at the far right as they lean upon the railing of a ship. Before them is a river filled with large vessels and small boats, and across the water, a hillside shrouded in mist obscuring the houses on the mainland. The ships are simplified in shape and flattened into silhouettes as well. Printed only in shades of gray, this atmospheric composition is perhaps Nagase's most appealing landscape with figures.
While in Paris, Nagase also created two woodcuts for another series, this time on famous Parisian landmarks, although he finished only two designs: "Eiffel Tower" (see below) and "Notre Dame." In "Eiffel Tower" (Efferutô: エッフェル塔) from 1930, he again used a monochromatic palette, this time in a yellow-gray, which hints at earlier sepia-toned photographs of the iconic structure.
Moving forward nearly three decades, Nagase explored the use of stencil without woodcut. In his design called "Early Summer," he depicted what seems to be a single nude shown simultaneously in dark-blue and light-blue forms. It is interesting to compare this elegant female nude with the animated dancing figure in the 1915 issue of Kamen (top of this page). It is also curious that Nagase settled upon a cool range of blue hues when one might expect a warmer chromaticism often associated with summer.
A decade later, Nagase continued working in a contemporary style. One example, an abstract print titled "Oasis," suggests that the artist was quite familiar with international trends in printmaking. More specifically, a few of the Abstract Expressionists were incorporating lettering into their works during the 1950s and 1960s, so it is possible that Nagase took his cues from some of these works. Even so, he did not abandon his Japanese roots. The textured-gray background is very much in the mode of the modern Japanese woodcut (or sôsaku hanga, creative prints, 創作版画) in which such textures, made by sure-handed and fluid control of the circular rubbing pad (baren: 馬楝) in the application of colorants, take on primary importance as compositional elements. In this print, bold forms are positioned centrally within the pictorial space, with the burnt-orange pigment adding a warm contrast against the grays, and the dark-lavender form with vertical bands providing an unexpected companion color.
Nagase Yoshirô’s prints are relatively scarce today, but they can be found in a few institutional collections, including the Art Institute of Chicago; Chiba City Museum of Art; Higashi Hiroshima City Museum of Art; Honolulu Museum of Art; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Minneapolis Institute of Art; and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. © 2021 by John Fiorillo