Saitô Kiyoshi (斎藤清 1907-1997) was born in Sakamoto, Fukushima prefecture. He studied Western-style painting at the Hongô Painting Institute and exhibited his oil paintings with various art groups and societies. After having a print accepted by the Kokugakai ("National Picture Association"), Saitô began to seriously pursue printmaking. In 1938 he issued his first prints in his now famous "Winter in Aizu" series. After steadily gaining recognition, he won first prize in 1951 (within the Japanese art division, judged separately due to the late arrival of all Japanese works) at the Sao Paulo, Brazil international biennial exhibition for his print called "Steady Gaze," where it won over both prints and paintings.
Saitô admired Piet Mondrian (1872-1944), and some of his views of buildings and temples seem to reflect that artist's simplified forms. Saito also acknowledged the influence of of Edvard Munch (1863-1944), Odilon Redon (1840-1916), and Paul Gauguin (1848-1903).
Saitô worked primarily in the woodblock medium, while also producing works in collagraph, drypoint, and color and ink paintings (suiboku ga). He carved his images into blocks of various woods, either solid katsura or plywood faced with
katsura, rawan, yanagi, keyaki, shina, or lauan, to obtain a wide range of textures. In some cases he used only one block for all the colors in a design, while for others he needed as many as 5 or 6 different blocks. He often used kizuki-hôsho ("genuinely-made hôsho," that is, the fine-quality paper made from kôzo, "Paper mulberry").
When Saitô visited his childhood home in Aizu in 1938, it prompted a series of nostalgic images. The print illustrated above is one of his early Winter in Aizu scenes. Roughly 15x18 inches, it was made in 1941 in an unnumbered edition. When Oliver Statler described it (see 1956 ref. below), 60 impressions had already been made. Two blocks of plywood faced with shina were used in two printing stages. The shades of black and gray were achieved through various amounts of water added to dilute the sumi pigment (Japanese carbon black), along with altering the concentration of the pigment as it was brushed on the carved blocks. Early papers were kizuki hôsho, while later printings were made on thicker papers. One senses here that Saitô was beginning to find his artistic voice with these highly stylized, deceptively simple images.
Saitô stunned the Japanese art establishment by sharing the top prize (along with Komai Tetsurô for an etching) at the Sào Paulo Biennial in 1951, beating out Japanese paintings and sculpture, still at that time considered to be superior arts. That a self-taught printmaker could grab such a prize was an outrage (Saitô did it again at the Ljubljana International Biennial in 1956), but he was a singular figure in raising the esteem for such works and in directly contributing to the survival and development of the modern Japanese print on the international stage. The award-winning print was carved in 1950 for an edition of 30 and is known today as "Steady Gaze - Flower" 凝視 [花] (Note: This design is different from a slightly earlier  large print by Saitô depicting a black and gray cat against a dark streaked-red background titled "Steady Gaze.") Statler called the 1950 design "Staring"; others refer to it as "Woman Gazing." The roughly 24x16 inch print required two blocks of solid katsura and four printing stages. The applied colors were sumi and gouache; mica was sprinkled on the white areas while they were still wet. Early paper was obonai made in Echizen, while the later printings were made on kizuki hôsho. Saitô said that for this design, he was influenced by Gauguin in the use of textured wood, and by Redon for the manner of personal expression.
Woodgrain patterns feature prominently in the works of Saitô. One of his most playful designs is titled "Beauty Contest" (競艷) from 1973. It is a large print measuring about 18.8 x 29.4 inches, issued in an edition of 80. Each of the fanciful cats proudly displays a unique woodgrain pattern, as Saitô puts the nine felines on display in a tableau of vanity not much different from the lineups of their human counterparts in traditional beauty pageants. Also on display is Saitô's mastery of printing with patterns—a tour de force in the use of this sosaku hanga technique. What should one make of the last cat on the far right? Is she to be seen as shy, aloof, bored, coquettish?
The print on the right is a portrait of a maiko or young geisha from Kyoto, a popular subject in modern Japanese prints and paintings. Saitô has simplified the forms to great effect and used the wood patterns to add texture and interest to his design. The wood-pattern background is especially dynamic and is also representative of the use by sosaku hanga artists of woodgrain (called mokumezuri, "grain printing"; see Wood Patterns and Making a Print). The maiko's white neck, considered an erotic feature, is made visible by the turn of her head. There is also an interesting ambiguity in the orientation of the maiko's torso and arms. The expressive circular sweep of the black robe as it spreads on the floor provides a decorative frame for the stylized wood-grained obi (sash), and it is punctuated by the careful placement of Saitô's artist seal and pencil signature in the large area of flat black on the left. Saitô created quite a few variations on the theme of the maiko, often bearing the same title but differentiated by letters or numbers in parentheses. The examples in numbered editions
were often in large format with image sizes measuring around 24x18 inches. This example, however, does not have a title, but rather bears the annotation "(2)" in the lower margin, and is from an unlimited, undated edition with an image area measuring approximately 15.5x10.0 inches. © 1999-2001, 2019 by John Fiorillo
- Harada, Minoru: The Life and Works of Kiyoshi Saito. Tokyo: Abe Shuppan, 1990.
- Merritt, H. and Yamada, N.: Guide to Modern Japanese Woodblock Prints: 1900-1975. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1992, p. 129.
- Petit, G. and Arboleda, A.: Evolving Techniques in Japanese Woodblock Prints. Tokyo: Kodansha, 1977, pp. 56 and 152.
- Smith, L.: Modern Japanese Prints, 1912-1989. London: British Museum Press, 1994, pp. 59-60, plates 93 and 95.
- Statler, O.: Modern Japanese Prints: An Art Reborn. Rutland VT: Tuttle, 1956, pp. 53-58 and 191-192, plates 29-36.