Sōsaku-hanga: Twentieth Century Japanese Creative Prints
Sōsaku-hanga, or creative prints (創作版画), emerged in mid-twentieth century Japan, transforming long-practiced woodblock printing methods by recruiting them to advance modern ideas of the artist as an expressive individual. While Japanese print production prior to the twentieth-century depended on the collaboration of a publisher with artists, carvers, and printers, generally independent artists created sōsaku-hanga . Frequently characterized by a blocky style and large areas of flat color, sōsaku-hanga often feature a rough carving technique to celebrate the nature and materiality of the woodblock. The resulting highly expressive imagery takes inspiration from a wide variety of domestic and foreign styles.
The rise of sōsaku-hanga in the late 1940s reflected the complexities of its time. Although its origins lie in the early twentieth century, sōsaku-hanga obtained recognition in the postwar period. At this time, Japanese artists struggled to gain acceptance in the Euro-American dominated art world, yet in the realm of prints they were afforded respect for their craft. At the first São Paulo Biennale in 1951 Kiyoshi Saitō received a first prize award, and Tetsurō Komai a second prize. The 1955 São Paulo Biennale honored Shikō Munakata with an award, and he took the grand prix at the 1956 Venice Biennale. Fashionable with American military personnel of the occupied forces and later with foreign tourists, journalists, and business travelers, sōsaku-hanga were sold to a savvy market of cosmopolitan collectors.
The prints were valued for their technical mastery and artistic range, and were admired as part of a lineage of Japanese woodblock printing. These claims to the “Japaneseness” of the prints were alternately rejected and celebrated by the artists themselves. As sōsaku-hanga gained popularity in the 1950s, many exhibitions featured the prints, including the Tokyo International Print Biennial and the College Women’s Association of Japan annual print show, where many of the works exhibited here were originally purchased.
In sōsaku-hanga one finds a visually compelling range of imagery that hints at the challenges and opportunities of the postwar period. During this time, Japan and the United States grew closer as allies both politically and culturally. The American military occupation of Japan (1942-52), the signing of the San Francisco Treaty in 1951, which formally ended the war, and a simultaneous security treaty that allowed the United States to maintain military troops in Japan forged diplomatic and security alliances between the America and a newly de-militarized Japan in the early years of the Cold War. Cultural exchange was promoted by governments of both nations through touring exhibitions of Japanese art in the United States and of American art in Japan, as it was believed that art and aesthetics enabled the re-imagination of the Japanese as creative individuals with a peaceful heritage rather than as the generic enemy promoted by wartime propaganda.