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Utamaro print showing


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SEKINO Jun'ichirô (1914-88)


Sekino kanji Sekino Jun'ichirô (関野準一郎), a significant figure in the sôsaku hanga movement, produced some of the finest portraits in twentieth-century Japanese art. Interested in both traditional and modern art, Sekino admired such ukiyo-e artists as Tôshûsai Sharaku (active c. 1794-95), and benefitted from his associations with Munakata Shikô and Onchi Kôshirô. Sekino also admired the work of European artists such as Rembrandt, Munch, Dufy, Lautrec, Zorn, and Kollwitz.

The most obvious influence upon Sekino's early portrait style was the artist, book-designer, poet, and mentor Onchi Kôshirô (1891-1955), whom he first befriended in 1939 and from whom, Sekino reported, he had learned the "spirit of art." Onchi was the pivotal artist in the sôsaku hanga movement from the 1930s until his death, and when looking at many of Sekino's early large-format portraits, some of them masterpieces, one immediately recognizes elements of Onchi's style.

We are reminded, in particular, of a preeminent large-format portrait in sôsaku hanga — Onchi's 1943 portrayal of the modernist free-verse poet Hagiwara Sakutarô (1888-1942). Sekino's connection with Onchi was a direct one — he was one of three founding members of Onchi's Ichimoku-kai (First Thursday Society), along with Yamaguchi Gen, whose meetings, begun in 1939, were held in Onchi's home. (Sekino and Yamaguchi suggested these meetings as a way to schedule and limit the demands on Onchi's time by his young followers.) The post-war demand among American and European collectors for impressions of the Hagiwara image was high, but Onchi produced very few impressions (probably around 15 over several years). Then, in 1949, Sekino printed an edition of 50 impressions with some guidance from Onchi (see Onchi).

(L) A self-printed trial proof with added figure in the background from a graffiti-style caricature of the actor Iwai Kumesaburô III (later Iwai Hanshirô VIII) in Osome Hisamatsu ukina no yomiuri (News of the affair of Osome and Hisamatsu), 1847, Ichimura-za, Edo by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, from the series Nitakaragura kabe no mudagaki (Storehouse of treasured goods: Scribblings on the wall: 荷宝蔵壁のむだ書)
(R) Impression from early self-printed edition, numbered 19/20, with a single actor-figure in background

A much-admired example of Sekino's post-war approach to large-format portraiture is shown above, featuring the kabuki actor Nakamura Kichiemon I (初代目中村吉右衛門 Shodaime Nakamura Kichiemon, 1886-1954). The figure in the background was derived from a famous portrait by Sharaku of the actor Tomisaburô Segawa I in the role of Yadorigi in the play Hana ayame Bunroku Soga ("The Iris Soga of the Bunroku Era") given at the Miyako-za, Edo in 1794. The inclusion of Tomisaburô was, according to Sekino, meant simply to evoke the atmosphere of kabuki and to establish Kichiemon as an important theatrical figure in a long tradition of illustrious actors.

Statler mentions two variant states with one or two added background figures, taken from a series by Utagawa Kuniyoshi in 1847-48. In the illustration above left, the actor Iwai Kumesaburô III has been inserted to the left of Tomisaburô. According to Statler, the other variant (not shown here; current whereabouts unknown) depicts as a second background figure the actor Shukô Bandô in the role of Shizuka Gozen in the play Yoshitsune senbon zakura ("Yoshitsune and the thousand cherry trees") at the Kawarazaki-za, Edo in 9/1847.

Sekino became friends with Kichiemon during the Second World War when the actor's kabuki troupe performed at a factory where Sekino was stationed. Although his portrait style was influenced by Onchi, by this time Sekino was a fully accomplished print designer on his own terms. He used a somewhat "drier" and more controlled method compared with Onchi's experimental, spontaneous, and "moist" approach. Sekino's technique, like Onchi's, involved soft edge overprintings (without keyblock outlines) of various shades of colors for the modeling of the face. It was a complex method requiring carved-out shallow depressions in the blocks and nuanced shading of pigments as he applied them to the blocks in multiple overprintings.

According to Oliver Statler, for the portrait of Kichiemon, Sekino needed 15 printing stages and used six plywood blocks of shina (basswood or Japanese linden), a soft wood with fine texture (instead of sakura or Japanese cherry, the traditional wood used for ukiyo-e printmaking, which was moderately hard). True to sosaku hanga principles, Sekino carved, printed, and published early editions of his portrait of Kichiemon. Self-printed impressions come from an edition of 20 plus some unnumbered proofs (see images above). Later editions of 50 and 100, plus "second state" (IIme état) printings, are almost always studio-produced. In the example below, the image, although well printed, was done by Sekino's studio artisans under his supervision. The result is greater contrast in color and and less subtle in details than self-printed examples. The image extends close to the edges of the sheet, which measures 633 x 497 mm. It is inscribed IIme état, numbered 16/100, and dated 1947. The portrait of Kichiemon, one of Sekino's large-format portraits designed between 1946 and 1954, comes from a stylistically coherent group of designs that are widely considered masterpieces of twentieth-century Japanese printmaking.

Sekino kichiemonSignature styles help to identify self-printed editions, particularly when the letter "J" in Jun'ichirô is written without the looping curves of later signatures. When demand rose for these large portraits, Sekino did not want to spend his time printing more editions. So he employed studio artisans to do the printing, under his general supervision (he signed and sealed these impressions, so his "approval" was explicit). To a degree these later printings are less interesting, on average, compared with Sekino's own printings because they show less variety or experimentation from impression to impression, and the papers on which they are printed were more absorbent than the earlier torinoko papers, tending to take the pigments in a similar manner across the entire edition. On the whole, self-printed impressions of these early large-format portraits are more complex and subtle (as in the self-printed examples at the top of this page).

From 1954 or earlier, it appears that Sekino printed his large portrait designs for the early editions, whose sizes were: unnumbered, 1, 5, 10 or less, and 20 or less. Impressions from editions of 30 are often self-printed, but not always. Examples from editions of 50 or more and from IIme état editions were almost always printed by studio artisans. To make verifications of self-printing even more complicated, Sekino did occasionally print some impressions for later editions, although on the more modern types of papers and in a manner similar to that of his artisans. Furthermore, he also occasionally used a later signature style on earlier impressions when they were sold at much later dates. With experience one can assess whether an impression is self-printed by relying on an array of factors: style of printing, edition size, signature, type of paper, application of color, and comparisons with known self-printed impressions.

© 1999-2014 by John Fiorillo


  • Elias Martin: Behind Paper Walls: Early Works and Portraits by Jun'ichirô Sekino. Chicago: Floating World Gallery, 2010.
  • Kuwabara Sumio, ‘The print world of Sekino Jun-ichirō’, in: Jun-ichirō Sekino, the prints; Japanese title: Sekino Jun-ichirō hanga sakuhinshū (Collected print works of Sekino Jun’ichirō). Tokyo: Abe Shuppan, 1994 (1997 edition).
  • McClain, Robert & Yoko: Thirty-six Portrait Prints by Sekino Jun'ichirô. Eugene: University of Oregon, 1977.
  • Merritt, Helen: Modern Japanese Woodblock Prints. The Early Years. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1990, pp. 239-242.
  • Sekino Jun’ichirō, My printmaking teachers: Biographies of modern Japanese print artists (Waga hangashitachi: Kindai Nihon hanga kaden, わが版画師たち 近代日本版画家伝). Tokyo: Kōdansha, 1982.
  • Sekino Jun’ichirō, Carving people: A collection of 50 years of Sekino’s block prints (Ningen o horu Sekino hanga gojūnen no shūtaisei). Tokyo: Bunka Shuppan Kyoku, 1981.
  • Statler, Oliver: Modern Japanese Prints: An Art Reborn. Rutland & Tokyo: Tuttle, 1956, pp. 63-70 and 192-194.
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