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VJP title
Utamaro print showing


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TAKAHASHI Rikio (高橋力雄)


Takahashi Rikio (高橋力雄 1917-1999) was one of the last true sôsaku hanga (creative prints: 創作版画) artists. He explored, through abstraction, the forms, textures, and colors found in gardens and nature. especially the classic gardens of Kyoto. Much of Takahashi's work is lyrical in mood (some of his print titles include English words such as "lyric" or "nostalgia"), although there is a greater variety of expression in Takahashi's oeuvre than perhaps some have realized. Certainly there are works of assertive gestural power that express forces in nature other than tranquility.

Takahashi Rikio: Ga (Congratulations), 1962
Woodcut, ed. 50 (858 x 537 mm)

The woodcut shown above, titled "Congratulations," is a very large print (image size 858 x 537 mm) from an edition of 50 issued in 1962. Texture is important in this design, "regulating" the color densities and disrupting the uniformity of hues in all areas and shapes except for the large green orm at the top. There is interplay among the lightly printed forms in the lower half of the composition, parts of which seem to either merge with or float above the pale-green expanse. Further subtle disturbance arises from the nearly opaque green shape, its substantial mass introducing a feeling of imbalance and descending movement. Overall, this is a lyrical work that avoids complete stillness; it is quiet but alive.

Takahashi, born in Honjo Wakamiyacho, Tokyo, was the son of Takahashi Tarao, an artist of the Nihonga school (Japanese-style painting: 日本画). Essentially self-taught as a printmaker, from about 1949 Rikio developed some of his skills as an unofficial disciple of the seminal figure in modern Japanese printmaking, Onchi Kôshirô (1891-1955), whose late non-representational style had a significant influence on Takahashi. He always considered Onchi as his only mentor, with their last meeting taking place in 1952.

In 1958, Takahashi had his first solo show at the Yoseido Gallery in Ginza, Tokyo. Recalling that time, he said, "I put a Japanese aesthetic sense, which I had previously suppressed, into the work I showed on this occasion. This sensibility was nourished by several visits I made to Ise, Nara, and Kyoto during the period of spiritual emptiness that followed the war. Trees ruffled by the breeze, ponds and rocks, the sound of water — these were the things that had restored my spirit, and I made a deliberate attempt to capture them in my art."

Around this time, after meeting the president of the International Graphic Art Association (IGAS) of New York in Tokyo, Takahashi received a large order for his prints from American buyers, and soon after four more orders were received. Encouraged by this response, Takahashi made his first trip to the United States in 1962. Later, in 1965, he returned to America (his third trip) to work with Ken Tyler who had just established the Gemini G.E.L. print studio in Los Angeles. That same year, in September, he was admitted as an extension student into the Chouinard Art Institute in the Westlake district of Los Angeles, where he studied ceramics and casting technology. The school had already been integrated into the California Institute of Arts (now in Santa Clarita) in 1961, but it retained its original name until its physical relocation in 1970. All told, Takahashi made four trips to the U.S. where he had 18 solo shows.

Takahashi's technique was representative of various experimental approaches toward printmaking adopted by the postwar sôsaku hanga artists. Using shina-faced (veneer) plywood, Takahashi would partially overlap blocks and print with thin watercolor ink, creating distinct tones. He was adept at printing subtle overlays of one or more colors, creating varied opacities and textures that he punctuated by a range of shapes. Masayoshi Homma has written: "To preserve the integrity of colors, each block is printed partly over a white area; darker tones are usually the result of several overlappings. Takahashi almost never uses colors close to the primaries. He uses an abundant variety of subdued mixtures, subtle variations of warm browns, cool water tones, and greens resembling the feathers of the bush warbler greens. These are all colors typical of Kyoto. Their constant luminous quality is a characteristic of Takahashi’s work that might be considered a reflection of the calm and elegant Yayoi aspect of the Japanese spirit. Beginning in 1970, there was a sudden appearance of bright areas of red and red accents that give a finishing touch to the composition. There are brief glimpses of a free spirit which break the tension of carefully maintained balance."

Takahashi Rikio Tea Ceremony Room, 1963
Woodcut, ed. 30 (788 x 543 mm)

The design immediately above, titled "Tea Ceremony Room," is another very large print (image size 788 x 543 mm) from an edition of 30 issued in 1963. Inspired by nature, Takahashi always seemed to have a season in mind. Here he used warm colors for the upper two-thirds of the composition, along with the strong green below, suggesting a late spring or summer month. The violet form is mildly assertive, an imaginatively chosen accent for an otherwise warm expanse of harmonious colors. It brings to mind a blossoming flower edging to the forefront of the composition, too small to dominate but too bright to ignore. There is a surprise as well in the dense black irregular rectangle moving in from the right. Below all this is the large near-oval of verdant green. As these familiar colors and shapes are present in many Japanese gardens, the title of the print implies that we have a view looking out from a tea room.

Takahashi once said, "It is impossible to speak about my work while looking at a book or photographic reproductions of it. It is like scratching a place that itches while wearing an overcoat. Flat printed reproductions are different from the actual work. My prints are made with the water-based mineral pigments called suihi, which are used in Japanese-style painting [nihonga], on handmade Japanese paper. The pigments are rubbed into the physical volume of the paper with a baren, and this produces an effect essentially different from a picture printed flat and clean with a machine. Also, the colors in the reproduction are always slightly different from those in the original. All forms of Japanese culture are structured as a do (道), a "way" or "path." The prescribed path must be taken to approach these practices — kendo (the way of the sword: 剣道), judo (the soft way of wrestling: 柔道), shodô (the way of writing: 書道), kadô (the way of flowers: 華道), kôdô (the way of incense: 香道), and sado (the way of tea: 茶道). However, there is no do (道) in my work. I am hoping to convey something true, hopefully not something false or pretentious."

Takahashi Rikio: Lyric Kyoto No. 4 (1960)
Woodcut, edition 30 (880 x 615 mm)

The composition shown above, Lyric Kyoto No. 4, from 1960, aligns with Takahashi's occasionally vigorous mode of print design. There is significant "action" across the wide paper surface (880 x 615 mm). Indeed, some of the colors have been applied as if brushed with energetic gestural movements, a quality present in countless examples of traditional Japanese (and Chinese) calligraphy and painting, which Takahashi would have known. These carved forms are reminiscent, too, of some Western mid-twentieth-century "action paintings" or "gestural abstractions."

In 2007, Takahashi's eldest daughter presented the Museum of Modern Art, Kamakura & Hayama, Japan with approximately 500 of her father's works dating from the 1940s through the 1990s. Sixty of these prints were selected for an exhibition titled "Lyricism of the Woodcut: Takahashi Rikio Retrospective" (木版に抒情を刻む 高橋力雄展) in April 2008. © 2020 by John Fiorillo


  • Jenkins, Donald: Images of a Changing World: Japanese Prints of the Twentieth Century. Portland, 1983, pp. 102 and 126.
  • Masayoshi Homma: "The World of Rikio Takahashi — The Spirit of Wood," in: Rikio Takahashi, The Woodblock Prints. Abe Publishing, 1998, pp. 18-21.
  • Smith, Lawrence: The Japanese Print Since 1900: Old Dreams and New Visions. London, 1983, pp. 119 and 129.
  • Smith, Lawrence: Modern Japanese Prints 1912-1989. London, 1994, p. 46.
  • Statler, Oliver: Modern Japanese Prints: An Art Reborn. Rutland, VT: 1956, pp. 133-136.
  • Takahashi Rikio: "Reflections on the Path of Printmaking," in: Rikio Takahashi, The Woodblock Prints. Abe Publishing, 1998, p. 197.
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