Watanabe Sadao (渡辺禎雄 1913-1996) was born and raised in Tokyo. His father died when he was ten years old, and he dropped out of school while still young to work as an apprentice in a dyer's shop. When a Christian woman in his neighborhood invited him to attend church with her, he was introduced to a faith-based view of life that would affect him profoundly. In 1930, at the age of seventeen, Watanabe was baptized.
Watanabe became a student of the master textile dye artist Serizawa Keisuke (芹沢銈介 1895–1984), and was associated with the mingei (folk art: 民芸) movement founded by Yanagi Sôetsu (柳宗悦 1889–1961) in 1926. These encounters provided him with a theoretical and principled approach toward arts and crafts that espoused the appreciation of beauty in everyday utilitarian objects, especially when created by anonymous craftsmen.
In 1937, one year after Yanagi established the Folk Art Museum (日本民藝館 Nihon Mingeikan) in Komaba, Meguro-ku, Tokyo, Watanabe attended an exhibition of Serizawa's textile designs. A few years later, he attended a study group in which Serizawa taught his katazome (型染) technique of stenciling and dyeing. From then on, the two remained close friends. The katazome method uses traditional organic and mineral pigments in a medium of soybean milk. The protein in the milk bound the colors to the paper's surface. The use of natural materials is one of the characteristics of mingei.
Watanabe based his designs exclusively on biblical subjects, although his Christian stories and figures were interpreted through a filter of traditional Japanese techniques and showed the influence of old Buddhist figure prints. Watanabe typically printed on a colored ground, so he would first apply a color to the paper before stenciling the figures. For his papers, he used kôzogami (楮紙), made from the bast (inner white fibers) of the mulberry tree, and momigami (揉紙 kneaded paper). Traditional momigami is made by applying konnyaku (こんにゃく) flour-paste to a strong, handmade kôzo paper, then wrinkling, kneading, or crumpling the paper by hand when wet to give a rough quality to the paper, and allowing it to dry.
In 1958, Watanabe received first prize at the Modern Japanese Print Exhibition held at St, James Church in New York City for his print "The Brazen Serpent" (青銅の蛇). Produced in an edition of 50 and impressively large format (paper size 597 x 953 mm), there are variant colorations among the impressions. In the example shown above, the background is a mix of red and yellow pigments that seem to suggest a radiating light surrounding the figures, all of whom are richly colored. Another impression is known with an unusual variegated lavender-pink background, and once again the figures are rendered with strong colors. Very different are yet other impressions with a nearly uniform golden-yellow ground where the figures are all in pale yellow and black.
Watanabe's Kiku (Listening: 聞く), created in 1960 in a large edition of 510 (paper size 430 x 278 mm; see second image above), was featured in the novelist and eminent print collector James Michener's The Modern Japanese Print (ref. below), a book that was critical to introducing sôsaku-hanga artists to the West. The colors come from natural mineral and vegetable pigments. The red background was applied first, then the colors white, green and yellow were brushed freehand. Finally, the black was brushed on through a stencil. This process differed from traditional kappazuri-e (合羽摺絵 stencil prints) for which the black outlines were applied first from carved woodblocks and then the colors were brushed on through stencils.
Lawrence Smith (ref. 1983 below) considered Kiku to be the masterpiece in Michener's book and possibly Watanabe's finest design at that time. Michener described Kizu as "powerful and persuasive," and said that "the whole effect of the print is ... medieval and iconographic." Watanabe, in a very different frame of reference, offered this about his print: "I have always aspired to portray stories and episodes from the Bible. In this disturbed world, I would like to be able to heed the voice of heaven. The person shown in this print is no one in particular, but was created in this spirit."
In the third illustration above, untitled in this impression but known as "Hope" from 1961 (ed. 50; paper size 505 x 445 mm), two figures are shown kneeling in prayer. The nearly identical postures is a common feature in Watanabe's work (we see this in "The Brazen Serpent" discussed earlier). Aside from the graphical unity that this style promotes, perhaps Watanabe was drawn toward a communal portrayal of souls who strive for salvation in similar ways. The intense lime-green background reveals the all-over crumpling of the momigami, whose textures add a vibrancy to the design and would seem compatible with the emotion inherent in such a subject.
True to the mingei philosophy, Watanabe once said that he wanted his prints displayed in the common spaces of life: "I would most like to see them hanging where people ordinarily gather, because Jesus brought the gospel for the people." © 1999-2020 by John Fiorillo
[For some early early Osaka stencil prints, see Nagahide]