Yoshida Masaji (吉田政次) was born in Wakayama. In 1934 he relocated to Tokyo where he studied at a private painting school founded in 1909 by the Shijô-style painter Kawabata Gyokushô (川端 玉章 1842-1913). He next joined the faculty for yôga (Western-style painting: 洋画) at the Tokyo Bijutsu Gakkô (Tokyo School of Fine Arts: 東京美術学校) in Ueno where, between 1935 and 1944, Hiratsuka Un’ichi taught an extracurricular hanga (blockprinting: 版画) course. Yoshida attended some of those classes and became interested in printmaking, but then joined the Japanese army in 1942. He was seriously wounded and after a six-month hospitalization, returned from China in March 1946 as a repatriated prisoner of war. That same year, he resumed further post-graduate studies at the university before becoming a teacher at a public high school.
Yoshida was one of the most prominent pupils of Kôshirô Onchi. Around 1948 he met the inspirational Onchi who encouraged his students to experiment with woodblock carving, printing, and compositional techniques. Yoshida told Oliver Statler (see ref. below) that, "I first became interested in abstract art at Ueno before the war. But it was Onchi, after the war, who gave me the impetus to do abstract work.... As I listened to him I found that he expressed many ideas I had long felt, and this gave me the confidence I needed.... For many years my style was molded by reaction against my wartime experience... I wanted something orderly and serene and peaceful, and I decided on quiet grays in simple vertical and horizontal forms. My titles give a clue as to what I was seeking: some of my earliest work is a series called Silence." *
The illustration on the upper right is titled Yûgen No. 1 (幽玄 no. 1), dated 1959, numbered 24/30, and signed in pencil in the lower margin with the artist's red Masaji seal at the lower right of the image. The paper size is double ôban (511 x 365 mm). Yûgen No. 1 is a representative of Yoshida's third phase of design (see further commentary below), which explores the effects of surface texture, soft-edge shapes, and restrained color to express an unsettled, brooding spirit. He used heavily dampened, unsized paper to allow the colors to spread, producing a blotting effect, thereby imparting soft edges to the shapes. He also printed muted shades of gray over some of the other colors to add further depth and complexity to his designs. The overprinting of dilute pale gray in the large gray tonal area creates a shifting sense of depth that contributes to a feeling of mystery. The placement of this dark gray mass at the top of the composition also suggests a sense of imminent movement. Diagonal black lines in the upper part of the design became a frequent design motif in Yoshida's later, often monumental prints of the 1960s.
The term yûgen in the print title is a difficult-to-translate concept, but it suggests something like "hidden mystery." Many critics have commented on the atmosphere of disquiet and suffering that seems to lie beneath the surface of the artist's prints. Yoshida once said that he was seeking "serenity" in his work. He also said that, "My long career ... could be divided chiefly into three phases. The first phase was a period of optimism.... Then in my second stage, my work became more withdrawn.... I was very much affected by the death of our only son. My lines tended to become nervous, sensitive, oblique.... My colors were dark — a shade of brown mixed with light red, Indian-red, and white — and they represented the colors of sorrow and destruction. Ironically, my work began to gain acclaim both at home and abroad. This style, which served as a safe island where I could hide my wounds, persisted until recently [mid 1960s]. Now I feel that I should come out of this self-imposed seclusion. I want to bring out a sense of space, which is difficult in woodblock prints."**
Whatever the interpretation, it is fairly certain that his interest lay in exploring simple forms that express a sense of what is profound or meaningful in human existence. The shapes in his compositions and the manner in which they are arranged are often vaguely reminiscent of the earth and gardens. Not only his designs but his print titles suggest this, such as "Fountain of Earth," "Peace-Evening," "Ancient No. 8," Space no. 13," and "Earth No. 3". Yoshida's restrained, sophisticated color palette has been praised by some who consider him to be one of the finest colorists of the sôsaku hanga school.
As Yoshida continued to explore alternative approaches in abstract design, he developed a "cut-out" method. According to Statler, Yoshida devised a new technique for these early works, without using the Japanese registration method of relying on the traditional kentô (見当) mark carved into each wooden board used for an image. Instead, he cut up a solid katsura (Judas tree: 桂) as if it were a jigsaw puzzle, one piece for each form. He mounted the pieces in a frame with a backing. To print a given form, he inserted cardboard underneath to raise it high enough to print unaffected by the other "cut-out" pieces. Any thin lines were printed from separate strips of plastic inserted edge-ways among the blocks. In order to maintain accuracy and registration, Yoshida tacked the paper to the frame, lifting it up temporarily to lower and raise particular blocks.
One example made with Yoshida's "cut-out" method comes from his "Silence" series (shown above). It has the characteristic subdued chromatic range found throughout the series. A pair of simplified human figures stand close together, apparently holding hands and gazing at one another. The abstracted landscape is composed of four bands of different hues of blue-gray, and is populated by two white rectangular objects, one black form, and a single black linear form. Otherwise, a silent white disk (sun) hangs in the sky. The next design in the series is called "Silence No. 50: Parting," in which virtually identical figures in a similar landscape are placed on the right side of the composition with the disk (possibly a setting sun) above them (see no. 84 in Statler ref. below).
As mentioned earlier, Yoshida wanted "something orderly and serene and peaceful" from the "Silence" series after the savagery and turmoil of the Pacific War. He called the setting for these early works the "desert," but he would soon leave that restrained world for one that offered something new. Yoshida found his way through images that were, he said, "conceived with a feeling of vigor and growth... I turned ... from muted grays to the force of black and white."
The second-phase "Fountain of earth" (地の泉) series is illustrated by the design above. It is quite large for a woodcut, with a paper size of 610 x 875 mm. A bold monochromatic geometry characterizes the work, with the contours of the forms defined by wood carved out from the block, leaving behind "white lines." There is a perceptual ambiguity engendered by some of the forms as they recede into the middle distance. The large works from this series use the stark contrast of black versus white to great dramatic effect. They are compelling expressions of Yoshida's drive to find visual equivalents of his inner life. In October of 1956, the artist's infant son died, a tragedy that found expression in a third phase of printmaking in which he returned to chromatic works characterized by complex textures, dark tones, and contrasting forms.
Yoshida's third phase introduced yet another shift in focus, this time incorporating large textured forms that dominated the pictorial space and were set in opposition to smaller shapes, which were variegated or solid in color. These smaller forms, to varying degrees, attenuated the authority of the larger masses. One such work, titled Kagirinaku No. 1 (Without Limit, No. 1: 限り無く No. 1), comes from 1958 in an edition of 30. In essential ways this design is similar to Yûgen shown at the top of this page, but Kagirinaku is larger and its central dark gray form is visible almost in its entirety as it bears down upon a smaller dark blue-green shape. Moreover, the large form is printed with a sharply defined edge, unlike the lower boundary of the gray form in Yûgen with its soft, bleeding contour. There is also a sharp division here between two background tonal areas, brown and gray. This design expresses a somber mood, contemplative and sad, that we can perhaps attribute to Yoshida's emotional response to the loss of his infant son about two years earlier.
Also on a large scale, Yoshida's Mukashi No. 1 (Ancient No. 1: 昔 No. 1) from 1960 places in opposition a large, textured, earth-color form with hints of blue-green against two decidedly different color shapes, one a wet splash of intense chrome-yellow, the other a broad curving arc of near-perfect black. Surrounding it all is an unusual (for sôsaku hanga) dark pastel-pink with intentionally imperfect coverage of the paper, which bleeds through the large earth-color form. The placement of all the elements across the pictorial space are the product of an intelligent and sensitive artistic mind and heart. In Mukashi No. 1, Yoshida continued his expressive depiction of things left unsaid and still-hidden mysteries. The vertical section in the main form, just to the left of center, appears as a rift in the surface, also suggesting an unexplored depth.
The fourth phase of Yoshida's printmaking marks a return to geometric design, but unlike his "Fountain" series, it introduces color and a more subtle treatment of forms and contrast. One large-format example, shown immediately above, is titled Sora mukai No. 44 (Direction in Space No. 44: 空向 no. 44) from 1965. In this print, greater linearity and sharper edges define the main forms in an orderly arrangement placed against a complex blue background. The groups of parallel black lines set within the circle at the lower left echo the sorts of lines at the top of the Yûgen composition shown on this page.
Yoshida Masaji's oeuvre is not large (he did very little work after contracting a fatal illness diagnosed in October 1969), but many public institutions do have prints by him, including the Art Institute of Chicago; British Museum, London; Cleveland Museum of Art; Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, MA; Honolulu Museum of Art; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Mead Art Museum at Amherst College; Minneapolis Institute of Art; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Museum of Modern Art, New York; National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo; Philadelphia Museum of Art; Victoria & Albert Museum, London. © 2020 by John Fiorillo