29 March 2013

Sosaku Hanga - Koshiro Onchi

This is the second article in a series about the artists of the sosaku hanga (creative prints) movement which took place in Japan during the early-to-mid 20th century. Artists involved in this movement held to the idea that for a woodblock print to be considered “art” rather than a commercial print, each step (design, carving, and printing) needed to be carried out solely by the artist rather than by separate artisans.

According to Oliver Statler, Koshiro Onchi (1891-1955) could be called a rebel. Raised in a conservative upper class family who expected him to be a doctor, Onchi rebelled by entering art school. His approach in art school was to do whatever he wanted, and he was subsequently invited to leave. Once on his own, Onchi continued his rebellion by abandoning the oil painting he had studied and, influenced by both Yamamoto and the work of Europeans like Kandinsky and Munch, he threw his oppositional energy into the sosaku hanga movement. Hanga was a perfect art form for Onchi's fighting spirit, as the Japanese art world of the time was strongly against accepting hanga in shows and competitions. 

Book cover design by Koshiro Onchi
Like most of the sosaku artists, Onchi supported himself by doing commercial work. He had studied calligraphy in his youth, and after art school he got involved in magazine and book design, with a special interest in art and literary magazines. By the mid-1920s he came to be known as one of Japan's foremost book designers.

There are several good online articles about Onchi. My friend Gerrie did a nice overview last fall on the Linosaurus blog, and there's a lot of good biographical information on the Lavenberg Collection web site. As a mokuhanga printmaker, my main interests for this post are Onchi's techniques and his thoughts about hanga

One of the first things I notice about Onchi's style is that it's all over the place. He could render figurative prints in great and gorgeous detail, as you can see from the following example.

Koshiro Onchi: Portrait of poet Hagiwara Sakutaro

I can barely believe that this portrait is a woodblock print, but it is. Onchi was clearly capable of beautiful draftsmanship and careful printing. 

Koshiro Onchi, Among the Rocks

And yet, his representational prints are often somewhat crude and messily printed. Look especially at the margins in the examples below, both of which come from a subscription series of prints made between 1928 and 1932 called 100 Views of New Tokyo.

I'm fascinated by the sloppiness, probably because I find it difficult to allow my own work to be sloppy, so I'm jealous of Onchi's cavalier attitude. 

Koshiro Onchi, Inukoshiro Park

Elise Grilli, a mid-century art critic for the Nippon Times, wrote about Onchi's feeling about craft in the following way. “Onchi delighted in flaunting the conventions of ukiyoe prints. The meticulous craftsmanship, the virtuosity of line, the hair-raisingly painstaking printing from twenty or thirty separate blocks, the finicky precision in overlapping the colors, and, in recent times, the overwhelming cleverness in naturalistic representation—all this he threw out the window with a single toss and a hearty laugh.”

Koshiro Onchi, from a print portfolio, 1930
Koshiro Onchi, 1946

 Yet Onchi's own words about hanga seem to contradict this anti-craft attitude. In his book The Modern Hanga of Japan he writes, “The virtue of hanga lies in the certainty that it comes from a creative process which permits no sham. Unlike brush painting, it allows no wavering of the hand. It is honest—sham and errors show. Some liberty may be allowed in the registry but so little that it, like the carving, is a process which permits no delusion…hanga rejects the accidental and rejects ornamentation…and it contains the most constructive process in graphic art, the advantage of superimposing pictures. For this reason, hanga is probably the most suitable method yet found for the expression of modern art, which lays stress on construction.”

Onchi came to believe that hanga was uniquely suited for abstract art, and as time went on he moved more and more in that direction. In his abstract work, Onchi was relentlessly experimental, constantly trying new techniques and materials. In addition to wood blocks, he printed with paper, cardboard, string, objects, leaves — anything that caught his imagination.

Koshiro Onchi, Leaf and Clouds, 1953

The forms in the print above, Leaf and Clouds, were cut from waxed paper. For each impression he brushed the waxed paper form with regular sumi ink and some nori, putting most of the ink near the edges, then laid the form onto a piece of glass with the inked side down. The printing paper was placed on top of that and he used his baren as usual, allowing the ink to ooze out from under the waxed paper. The leaf shape was printed from a leaf.

Onchi's portfolio prints were printed in larger editions, but many of his abstract prints were done in very small editions of 5 or fewer, making them more like paintings than prints. I can relate to not wanting to make big editions. 

I'm not so crazy about Onchi's abstracts, but I enjoy his figurative work and I love his rebellious and experimental spirit. 


NaThAn MoYa said...


I have been following your work and blog for about a year now. As always you offer something very unique, inspiring, and informative to the printmaking world. I think it's important to see printmakers talking about and engaging with the rich history of printmaking. The creative prints movement offers a valuable contrast to what is often shown in art books about Japanese prints, and it shows that Japanese printmaking is not homogenous in output and style.

nathan moya

Annie B said...

Thanks so much, Nathan. I'm glad you enjoyed this post. I too love to hear printmakers talking about printmaking in a larger way.