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Utamaro print showing


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YAMAGUCHI Gen (1896-1976)


Yamaguchi Gen kanjiYamaguchi Gen (山口源) was born in Fuji City (Shizuoka Prefecture). He spent his youth in Tokyo, and thought for a time about becoming a writer, but after his family moved to Taiwan in 1914 (where they had prosperous beer and sake breweries), he had a chance encounter with Shizuo Fujimori (1891–1943), an oil painter, sôsaku hanga artist, and friend of Onchi Kôshirô. Yamaguchi assisted Fujimori in collecting butterflies (!), while Fujimori introduced Yamaguchi to printmaking. Back in Japan, in 1932, Yamaguchi fell in with an anti-materialist group called Itto-en, which led him to renounce (for a time) financial support from his family and live an ascetic life. He survived with menial jobs, going house to house and offering to do chores. Serendipitously, he came to Onchi's home.

After the two spent some time together, Yamaguchi became an ardent admirer of Onchi and also befriended other sôsaku hanga artists (especially Azechi and Maeda). Self-taught, Yamaguchi once again accepted his family's support while he sketched and made prints. He was his own artist, independent and adventurous, although he and Onchi shared some of the same attitudes toward printmaking, especially in regard to experimental techniques. Yamaguchi said, for example, that at about the same time, he and Onchi separately began making prints with media other than woodblocks.

As the Second World War approached, Yamaguchi spent time as an itinerant painter. He was a Christian (a legacy of childhood Sunday school taught by a missionary) and political liberal, and was very much opposed to the militarism taking over Japan. For a few years, around 1935–37, he disappeared from the art scene, and may have been an activist in the anti-militarist underground.

Yamaguchi 1966

A chance meeting with the printmaker Umetaro Azechi prompted Yamaguchi to become active again in making hanga, and in 1939 he became one of the original members in Onchi's Ichimoku-kai (First Thursday Society), participating in the group's informal monthly meetings held at Onchi's house (Yamaguchi lived nearby, as did Jun'ichirô Sekino). The following year, Yamaguchi submitted representational prints to the Kokugakai ("National Picture Association") and other exhibitions. After the war, he focused on non-representational works, including "object prints," using leaves, grass, string, cloth, and other found objects in a style akin to Onchi's. Yamaguchi achieved an international reputation when he was awarded first prize at the International Print Biennale in Ljubljana, Yugoslavia, 1957, and a grand prix at Lugano, Switzerland in 1958 for his design titled "Noh Actor" (see below). He was the first Japanese artist to win the Lugano award. He died in 1976 in Enoura, Numazu City. The Yamaguchi Gen Prize was established in 1984 to recognize and encourage young artists.

Yamaguchi followed his own muse, an expression of his independent spirit in life and art. He experimented constantly, manipulating his materials and images as he sought to achieve innovative results. Illustrated above left is an untitled abstract from 1962, numbered 2/50 and printed on paper measuring 530mm x 400mm. Yamaguchi later reworked this design, calling it "Composition," dated 1966 as an artist's proof (A.P.). Yamaguchi turned the earlier image upside down and added two small shapes (blue and yellow). Also, the orange L-shapes, while similar, were not printed from the same color block. The background hues are very close in color between the original impressions; the differences seen here are the result of photographic artifact.

Likewise, for his famous print Noh Actor (below left), Yamaguchi introduced changes in background textures and subtle color shifts among the impressions, as well as a rare (possibly unique) variant (below right), with the "driftwood face" of the actor flipped 180 degrees and the shapes in the lower part of the composition replaced entirely, on papers whose sizes average 900mm x 500mm. The entire printing process is described in detail in Japanese Print Making (see Yoshida and Yuki reference below), where the authors mention that, "A weathered cedar board from an old fence gave the artist his idea for this solemn Noh actor, whose straining intensity produces a keen, tangible atmosphere...." Yamaguchi slightly modified the fence board with an aisuki (flat scraper) to accentuate the actor's profile, He used six different blocks in eight printing stages on torinoko (fusuma) paper with moderate sizing. The colorants were a combination of poster and powdered colors for the blacks, and five different gouache colors. The backgrounds were printed with thinned watercolors. ©2009-2015 by John Fiorillo



  • Retrospective Exhibition of Gen Yamaguchi, 100th Anniversary of the Artist's Birth; Art in Shizuoka No. 8; Shizuoka Prefectural Museum of Art, 1998, no. 137.
  • Jenkins, Donald: Images of a Changing world: Japanese Prints of the Twentieth Century. Portland Art Museum, 1983, no. 92, p. 111.
  • Statler, Oliver: Modern Japanese Prints: An Art Reborn. Rutland & Tokyo: Tuttle, 1956, pp. 154-158; color plate facing p. 154; b/w figures 88-89.
  • Yoshida and Yuki: Japanese Print Making. Rutland & Tokyo: Tuttle, 1966, pp. 150-155 and color plate 11 (p. 95).
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