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ONCHI Kôshirô (1891-1955)


Onchi kanjiOnchi violinistOnchi Kôshirô (恩地孝四郎) — innovative, independent, and charismatic — was a central figure in 20th-century Japanese printmaking. Onchi's experimentation in sôsaku hanga ("creative prints") inspired several generations of artists. Perhaps more than anyone else, it was Onchi who identified the principle of self-carving and self-printing as essential to the sôsaku hanga artist. The printmaker Yamaguchi Gen once said, "Onchi was a vital artist ... he had the inspiration and passion of a great artist. He was the embodiment of modern hanga in Japan and our ambassador to the rest of the world. He was heart and mind, and how we miss him!"

Onchi was raised and educated within an aristocratic family, the son of a high-ranking official of the Imperial Court who was a painter, calligrapher, and scholar of Chinese studies. Later, Onchi attended a Japanese-German middle school in preparation for a career in medicine. His knowledge of German provided him with more direct access to early 20th-century Western art. Onchi identified such painters and printmakers as Wassily Kandinsky and Edvard Munch, among others, as important early influences. Cezanne was also significant, most obviously in Onchi's lesser known oil painting, which he virtually abandoned circa 1924. Among Japanese influences, the artist Takehisa Yumeiji (1884-1934) was particularly important in the earliest years of Onchi's career, and in the non-visual arts, the poets Kitahara Hakashu (1885-1942) and Hagiwara Sakutarô (1886-1942), and the musician-composer Yamada Kôsaku (Kôsçak, 1886-1965).

Onchi lyricWhile enrolled in the Tokyo School of Fine Arts (Tokyo Bijutsu Gakko) in 1910 and engaged in Western-style oil painting and sculpture, he quickly rebelled against the dry academic philosophy he encountered there and dropped out after only four months into his second year. His first professional work came in 1911 as a book illustrator and designer, encouraged and assisted by Takehisa Yumeiji.

Beginning in October 1913, Onchi, along with two artist-friends, Fujimori Shizuo (藤森静雄 1891-1943) and Tanaka Kyôkichi (田中恭吉 1892–1915), founded a poetry and print magazine called Tsukuhae ("Reflection of the Moon" or "Moonglow") that featured both figurative and abstract prints. They called themselves Bishoha no sanin (Three men of the smile school), parodying the many artists' groups and associations that dominated the official art world. Initially, the young artists exchanged self-printed copies of their designs, gave away a few others as gifts, and sold a very small number of impressions. However, in 1914 Kawamoto Kamenosuke, the proprietor of the Rakuyôdôkan, agreed to publish impressions by subscription (the artist Takehisa Yumeiji 竹久 夢二 was partly influential in this decision, having vouched for the quality of the prints by the young artists). There were seven published issues in all, from September 1914 to May 1915. The first issue appears to have been published in 200 copies, but sales were very poor. Later editions became increasingly smaller, although it is difficult to estimate just how many copies of each issue were ever printed for public distribution or how many were actually sold. In subsequent years, certain designs by Fujimori and Onchi were self-printed in very small numbers. Complete copies of any edition remain exceedingly rare today. In the published Tsukuhae series, the prints were made not by hand-rubbing the back of the paper with a baren, but with a technique called mokuhan kikai zuri (木版機械摺) or "machine woodblock printing." — a process using woodblocks mounted in a printing press that exerts uniform high pressure to take up the colors from the carved blocks. The colorants were oil-based inks and the paper had a waxy surface quality, presumably to sufficiently control absorption of the oil pigments, which would have been difficult with standard kôzo-gami (楮紙). Over its seven issues, Tsukubae presented a youthful expression of Taishô-period romanticism and angst. Onchi wrote, self-critically, that, "It's thought and feelings were adolescent and its expressions immature." Even so, many of the designs are assertive and memorable. Most notably, issue no. 5 (March 1915) included Onchi's seminal work titled "Lyric: Clear Hours" or "Lyric: Bright time" (Lyric, Akarui toki: 抒情あかるい時), considered today to be the first wholly abstract print ever created in Japan (see image above left).

Onchi employed a varied and sophisticated approach to design, exploring figurative, abstract, and symbolic imagery through traditional and experimental techniques, both Japanese and Western. He was an excellent draftsman in the realistic manner. For example, see his celebrated portrait of the poet Hagiwara Sakutarô* illustrated below. However, his explorations into abstract composition must stand as seminal in the development of the sôsaku hanga movement. He not only used woodblocks to print his images, but also incorporated diverse, unconventional materials, such as fabrics, string, paper blocks, fish fins, and leaves.

Onchi portrait og Hagiwara Sakutarô

* The post-war demand among American and European collectors for impressions of the Hagiwara image was intense, but Onchi produced very few impressions (probably around 15 over several years). Then, in 1949, Sekino Jun'ichirô printed an edition of 50 impressions after some guidance from Onchi. In addition, a posthumous memorial edition of undocumented size was commissioned by Onchi's family and printed in 1955 by Hirai Kôichi. Finally, in 1987, Onchi's son Kunio printed 10 more impressions from the original blocks; seven went to museums and two are in private collections, while the location of the remaining impression is currently uncomfirmed.

Onchi's interest in abstract art was evident early in his career, including contributions to the aforementioned periodical Tsukuhae, and during the last 15 years of his life abstraction came to dominate his oeuvre. Onchi believed that the purpose of art was the expression of an artist's subjective experience. He was not interested in merely replicating an image from a set of blocks and thus he made very few editions. Onchi viewed woodblock prints as distinctive pictures produced by carving, their essence coming from the special quality and process of using blocks to impart shapes and colors onto paper. For Onchi, this meant an opportunity for experimentation and variation. In some instances Onchi made only one or two proofs from his blocks; if the result was what he wanted, he printed no more. His daughter Mio once said, "Father always says he'll make more copies for the people who come here pestering us for prints. But he never does." [See Michener reference below.]

As an example of how experimental Onchi could be, and how distainful he was of traditional ukiyo-e methodology, Michener also had this to offer: "In December 1953 Onchi Kôshirô ... made a self-portrait. Onto a slab of ordinary wood he smeared a heavy coating of glue, upon which he wound a thick strand of butcher's cord to form the rough outlines of a human face. When the glue hardened, Onchi hammered the butcher's cord with a big mallet to flatten it out so that it would yield, when ink was splashed across it, a bold, thick line. Then quickly, on a second rough chunk of wood, he cut several areas onto which ink or tempera or oil paint or anything else at hand could be smeared, and when everything was ready he haphazardly pasted down some kentô grooves to give a rough and ready kind of alignment. Then using whatever paper he happened to have, he jammed a sheet onto the blocks, rubbed it vigorously with the heel of his hand and produced a vibrant, coarse, exciting print."

The figure at the top right corner of this page depicts the violinist Suwa Nejiko in a concert given in 1946. Although untitled, it is known as Aru baiorinisuto no insho ("Impression of a Certain Violinist") because in the following year, Onchi composed a poem with that title, dated October 12, 1947, which was based on his strong emotional response to the event. The verses speak of Suwa's pale face and white silk robes illuminated by a yellow light, her energetic playing before an occupation army audience grating upon Onchi's spirit. (There is at least one known earlier impression or trial proof with yellow color on the face and background in evocation of the stage lighting.) Onchi ends his poem with a lament for the tragedy of Suwa's art under such conditions, using the yellow color as a metaphor for his sadness. The portrait of Suwa blends representational and abstract elements with an effective use of stark contrasts and limited color. The shape of the violin is also used as a boldly drawn black frame for the composition, as well as for the shape of Suwa's head. Perhaps the repeated shape-within-shape motif implies the confinement of the Japanese spirit in the aftermath of war, as suggested by Onchi's poem. (The impression shown here is a signed printing by Onchi.)

Onchi lyric Onchi was an admirer of Western classical music. The designs in his seminal series "Lyrique No. 2: Lyrique on music compositions," begun in 1930, were intended to be visual analogies of his responses to hearing the works of Bartok, Borodin, Debussy, Ravel, Scriabin, and Stravinsky, as well as the Japanese classical-style composers Moroi Saburô and Yamada Kôsaku. In that same year, Onchi wrote about the equivalence between the sounds in music and the colors and shapes in the pictorial arts. Music and art were means through which the artist could find "the heart" or emotional truth. The expression of emotion would be more successful when color and shape were separated from representational art, and so in that sense abstract compositions were the "true sphere of painting." At that time Onchi called this type of art a "lyric."

Onchi's use of the title "lyriques" in various later series on non-musical themes heralded further exploration into the expression of subjective feelings. Emotion was paramount. Similarly, he used "impromptu" in some titles, which was often meant to convey a feeling of spontaneity.

The composition immediately above is titled "Lyric No. 32" and dated 1955, Onchi's final year. The size is 550 x 430 mm. In his mature treatment of the "lyric" theme, Onchi achieved a notable synthesis of color, shape, and density. There is an allusive musical quality to the placement of the forms and their rhythms. Transparent colors overlap and mutate, darker areas obscure paler ones, altering colors, while textures add dimensionality and physical presence, and floating shapes introduce movement. The composition is in flux, intentionally ambiguous, but the impressive control of the print medium and non-traditional print materials argue against chaos. The receptive viewer feels the resonant emotional power of such designs. © 2001 by John Fiorillo


  • Hisae Fujii, "Kôshirô Onchi's Prints," in: Kôshirô Onchi and Tsukuhae. National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo. July 2 – August 15, 1976.
  • Kuwahara Noriko, "On Onchi Kōshirō’s 'Lyric on musical composition' series: a case study of Japanese abstract painting in the 1930s" [Onchi Kōshirō no ‘gakkyoku ni yoru jojō’ shiriizu o megutte: 1930 nendai no Nihon no chōshō kaiga ni kansuru ichi kōsatsu], in: Bigaku [Aesthetics], Japanese Society for Aesthetics, Bigakukai, 2003.
  • Kuwahara Noriko, Study of Onchi Kōshirō: modernity in Japanese prints [Onchi Kōshirō kenkyū hanga no modanizumu], Serica Shobō, Tokyo 2012.
  • Matsumoto Tōru, Kumada Tsukasa, Inoue Yoshiko, Onchi Kōshirō. National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo and the Museum of Modern Art, Wakayama, exhibition catalogue, Tokyo 2016.
  • Merritt, Helen: Modern Japanese Woodblock Prints. The Early Years. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1990, pp. 178-199.
  • Michener, James: The Floating World, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press,1954, pp. 249 and 252.
  • Sotheby's: The Roy G. Cole Collection of Fine Sosaku Hanga. New York, June 19, 1990, lot. 93.
  • Statler, Oliver: Modern Japanese Prints: An Art Reborn. Rutland & Tokyo: Tuttle, 1956. [Quotation in first paragraph above excerpted from p. 158]
  • Swinton, E. de Sabato: The Graphic Art of Onchi Kôshirô: Innovation and Tradition. [Dissertation, 1980] New York: Garland Publishing, 1986.
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