Nakagawa Isaku (中川伊作 1899-2000) was born in Kyoto and graduated from the Kyoto Shiritsu Bijutsu Kôgei Gakkô (Kyoto City School of Fine Arts and Crafts) in 1918 (studying with Kikuchi Keigetsu, 1879-1955) and the Kyoyo Shiritsu Kaiga Senmon Gakkô (Kyoto City Specialist School of Painting) in 1921. His prints of women issued in the 1930s are admired for the realism of their gestures and the detailed and accurately rendered textile patterns. He was also fond of depicting fish subjects, as well as landscapes and portraits. Overall, Nakagawa's prints have survived in very few impressions, suggesting his editions were rather small.
One of Nakagawa's most popular prints is his Guran masse ("Grand massé": グランマッセ), a view of a young woman attempting a trick shot in billiards. Aiming from above, she will strike the cue ball on its side, which will propel it around the closest red ball and curve it into the second. The image captures the lingering spirit of the so-called "jazz age" in Japan, when modan garu ("modern girls: モダンガル) or "moga" adopted attitudes, behaviors, and fashions from the West in the 1920s-1930s. This liberated type of young Japanese woman who affected Western-style dress and hairstyles, as well as a more openly sexual manner, was seen as a threat to the traditional woman's role that valued reticence, obedience, devotion, self-sacrifice, and public decorum. The print is "signed" with a blind-printed (embossed) stamp reading Isaku (伊作) at the upper right in the background.
Nakagawa was involved in the founding of the Kyoto Sôsaku-hanga Kyôkai (Kyoto Creative Print Society: 京都創作版画協会) in 1929, along with various other artists, and he was a member of Nihon Hanga Kyôkai (Japan Print Association, founded in 1931) from 1932. He contributed to dôjin zasshi (coterie art magazines: 同人雑誌) such as Han geijutsu ("Print Art": 版芸術) and joined three other artists (Asada Benji, Asano Takeji, and Tokuriki Tomikichirô) in a twelve-print set issued sometime in the early 1930s (for which the artists designed three prints each); see below. Earlier, in the mid-1920s, these same four artists had formed the so-called Yonin Sôsaku Hanga Hanpukai (Four-Men Creative Print Distribution Club: 四人創作版画頒布会) in Kyoto. Around 1932, Nakagawa was set to collaborate on a print series titled Shin Kyoto gojikkei hanga (Prints of Fifty Views of New Kyoto: 新京都五十景版画), but the series was incomplete as published by Nakajima Jûtarô of the Sôsaku Hanga Club and only a few images are known.
The print shown above is one of three that Nakagawa contributed to a series of twelve designs in a collaborative effort with Asada Benji (麻田辨自 1899-1984), Asano Takeji (浅野竹二 1900-1999), and Tokuriki Tomikichirô. Nakagawa's "Out for a stroll" or Shôjo (Young ladies: 少女) presents two figures drawn in a primitive, almost cartoon-like manner. The linework is relatively unmodulated and there is no attempt at subtlety. Yet the result is a charming view of youth and innocence before the clouds of war would darken life in Japan. The print bears the seal, carved in the block, for the first character "I" in the artist's given name, Isaku (伊作).
In 1936 Nakagawa produced a print titled Kamiyui (Dressing the hair: 髪結). The image falls within the centuries-old tradition of depicting women attending to their makeup and hair. Such visions often serve as a voyeur's delight, affording glimpses into the private moments of the beauties from each era immortalized in the printed sheets of paper.
Aside from printmaking, from around the mid-1920s, the multi-faceted Nakagawa made his living as an antique dealer and became president of the Oriental Antique Art Study Group in 1936. He was also involved with collecting folk crafts and making pottery. In 1928 he went to Okinawa for the first time together with Yanagi Sôetsu (柳宗悦 1889-1961), co-founder of the Nihon Mingei Kyôkai (Japan Folk Art Society: 日本民芸協会 1931) in collaboration with the distinguished potters Kawai Kanjirô (河井寬次郎 1890-1966) and Hamada Shôji (濱田庄司1894-1978).
After going on a sketch tour of Okinawa in 1929, Nakagawa became fascinated with Okinawan folk ceramics and built a collection of more than 100 pieces. These were exhibited at the Kyoto National Museum in 1938 for a show titled Nanban masa sue (The Elegance of Nanban Pottery: 南蛮雅陶). In 1972 Nakagawa moved to Tsuboya (壺屋) in Naha City, Okinawa, a district famous for Tsuboya-yaki (Tsuboya ware: 壺屋焼), a type of Ryûkyûan pottery. There he built his own kiln and started experimenting with ara-yaki (荒焼 also known as nanban-yaki 南蛮焼 or Nanban ware) — traditional unglazed Okinawan pottery first developed from the trade between the Ryûkyû Islands and Southeast Asia in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. For examples of Nakagawa's pottery, see below. Note the red color of the clay and on the right, the scored, wave-like pattern and the impressed form of a fish at the right on the base of the form.
Nakagawa designed fabrics, some adapted from the ideas he used in his prints. He also collected and published books about textiles made in Japan and Southeast Asia: Nanpô kafu (南方華布 1941) and Ryûkyû senshoku meihin shû (Collected Masterpieces of Ryûkyû Dyeing and Weaving: 琉球染織名品集 1952). The first work featured fifty examples of fabrics from Okinawa, Thailand, Vietnam, Luzon (Philippines), and elsewhere, which were gathered and rendered into woodblock prints by Nakagawa. Copies of Nanpô kafu are held in the the Kyoto Institute of Technology and Tokyo National Museum. The cover and a sample textile print are shown below. Copies of the Ryûkyû masterpieces volume are in, among others, the Bunka Gakuen University Library, Tokyo; Kanazawa College of Art Library; Kyoto Institute of Technology Library; University of Tokyo General Library; and University of the Ryûkyûs Library.
Nakagawa lived in the United States for more than a decade. Starting in 1960, he was a visiting professor at the San Francisco Art Institute, where he lectured on Asian painting and modern prints. By 1964, in the same city, he was a guest lecturer at the Rudolf Schaeffer School of Design (founded 1924, closed 1984), originally called the Rudolph Schaeffer School of Rhythmo-Chromatic Design. Schaeffer (June 26, 1886 - March 5, 1988) was a life-long educator and pioneer in the study of color design. As he was was greatly influenced by Asian aesthetics, philosophy, and design, it is likely he invited Nakagawa to lecture on such principles. During this time, Nakagawa also lectured on Asian painting at several state universities and other educational institutions. In 1964 he was awarded a key to the city by the mayor of San Francisco for his educational contributions and for having held exhibitions of his art works (there were ten or more in the U.S.).
In his very long life, Nakagawa contributed to numerous international exhibitions. He enjoyed traveling throughout the Americas and Mexico, the latter for the first time in 1967. Then, in 1972, he moved to Chinaba, Okinawa, where he remained for the rest of his life, working and exhibiting until his death in 2000.
Prints by Nakagawa Isaku are in the collections of the Harvard Art Museums; Honolulu Museum of Art; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; and National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo (東京国立近代美術館). © 2021 by John Fiorillo