Ito Shinsui (1898-1972)  Showa era (1926-1989), 1928 Katsushika Hokusai  (1760-1849)  Edo period (1615-1868), circa 1830 Ito Shinsui (1898-1972)  Taisho era (1912-1926), circa 1917-1918 Hashiguchi Goyo (1881-1921)  Taisho era (1912-1926), 1920

As Japan modernised at breakneck speed, a young entrepreneur persuaded artists to depict the country in a fresh way. But he was on borrowed time, says Matthew Wilcox

In 1856, inspecting a crate of new porcelain arrived in Paris fresh from the Far East, the artist Félix Bracquemond happened to unfurl some of the crumpled paper cushioning the fragile ceramics. He was captivated by what he saw. The images on the packing material were the work of an obscure Japanese printmaker called Katsushika Hokusai – and they were about to transform Western art forever.

Bracquemond, an intimate of Rodin, Manet, Degas and Pissarro, became an evangelist for this art, and following his discovery, the mania for Japonisme built steadily. Then, a decade later, a Japanese pavilion was included for the first time at the Paris Exposition Universelle, and the craze reached fever pitch.

Soon Monet had acquired a collection of some 250 Japanese prints, while James Whistler threatened to put out the eye of Zacharie Astruc after the critic tried to buy the same Japanese objet that the painter had already reserved at one of the new oriental emporiums then springing up in Paris.

In the 1880s, Vincent van Gogh noted in a letter to his sister, "You will be able to get an idea of the revolution of painting when you think, for instance, of the brightly coloured Japanese pictures that one sees everywhere." Indeed, his admiration for Hokusai's The Great Wave – an early impression of which is offered in March's Japanese Prints sale at Bonhams New York – can be seen in the Dutchman's swirling nocturnal vision, Starry Night. "To some extent," he explained in 1888, "all my work is based on Japanese art."

Europe had fallen in love with a vision of Japan – the alluring and elegant 'floating world', captured in ukiyo-e prints. Yet this escapist art, aimed at wealthy Edo era merchants who craved images of beautiful women, famous places and the kabuki theatre, depicted a way of life that was, in truth, already vanishing.

By the early 1900s, Western technological innovation was overwhelming traditional Japanese techniques, with lithography and photo-mechanical printing machines displacing the time-honoured woodblock printing that underpinned depictions of the 'floating world'. Those Japanese artists, carvers and printers who remained were facing tough times. Even as Western audiences lapped up Puccini's Madam Butterfly, the reality of contemporary Japan was very different from the staid feudal society that the opera depicted. This was the Taisho era, Japan's Jazz Age. Tokyo was already the largest city in the world. The first salarymen had taken to the commuter trains, alongside newly fledged career women – bringing economic and sexual freedom to millions of Japanese. Literacy was widespread, anarchists, Bolsheviks, trade unionists and militant feminists met in European-style cafés to plot the overthrow of the government, while young Japanese clad in Western-style clothes danced the night away to the sound of ragtime. Meanwhile, artists and writers embraced Dadaism, Futurism, and Surrealism.

The Japanese print industry that sustained the 'floating world' fantasy was in danger of disappearing. The surviving publishers scraped by, moonlighting as pornographers while churning out tired reproductions, which they exported to Europe and America to feed the insatiable public appetite there for arching wooden bridges, cherry blossom and kimono-clad beauties.

One such publisher was Shozaburo Watanabe (1885-1962). At a young age, he had established his own print shop, forced to go into business after his father, a gambler, had squandered the family money. Watanabe's business had also started out shipping reproductions of old prints to the West. But where Watanabe distinguished himself was in his obsessive attention to detail in recreating the prints of the masters, even going so far as to recreate the vegetable dyes of the Edo era.

Watanabe realised that he couldn't continue making new money from old rope. The Japonisme craze had created a market for prints of Japan by such masters as Hiroshige and Hokusai – but where could fresh images of their vanishing world be found? Watanabe sought to fill the gap by commissioning some of the country's new painters to produce images suitable for reproduction. He called these shin hanga, 'new prints'.

The works in the Malenka Collection to be offered in the Japanese Print Sale in New York, demonstrate the breadth and depth of this new genre. Mirroring the key themes of traditional 'floating world' prints, shin hanga depicted famous actors, young women, flowers and landscapes. For each subject, Watanabe had his preferred artist: Kawase Hasui for landscapes, Koson Ohara for birds and flowers, Ito Shinsui for pin-ups, and Natori Shunsen for actor portraits. (Works by Hasui and Shinsui feature strongly in the Malenka Collection.)
So that the finished prints were attractive to foreigners, shin hanga images drew on classical Japanese literature and poetry: snipe rising above a wintery marsh, the full moon in autumn, wind in the pines.

Nevertheless, the treatment of these themes by shin hanga artists reflected changes in their society. Though illustrating a Japan that had almost disappeared, they eagerly appropriated, for example, the Impressionist use of light and shadow. Trained in art schools rather than as apprentices in workshops, this new generation of artists were as conscious of recent trends in Western art as they were of historical Japanese styles.

Although Watanabe was opportunistic, he had a fine eye and, using classically trained carvers and printers, he was soon producing work that was every inch the match of the masterpieces of the Edo era. The shin hanga artists travelled to the far corners of the archipelago to record the country in careful compositions imbued with a profound sense of melancholy, even anxiety. The best of these evoke the intangible Japanese aesthetic quality mono no aware, a sensitivity to the transience of life, and hint at a more ambiguous alternative translation of ukiyo – not a floating world at all, but one that was sinking.

Despite the heavyweight themes of the work being produced, relations between the artists themselves could be amusingly petty. One of the group's leading lights, Ito Shinsui slagged off Kawase in a magazine article for "failing to establish his own voice". Shinsui blamed Watanabe, whom he accused of a slavish 'worship' of Hiroshige, and claimed that the impresario forced his stable of artists to compromise their vision for commercial advantage. Watanabe could indeed be controlling, especially with money, preferring to keep the artists on a short leash by paying them regular small sums, particularly the choleric Shinsui, who was known to blow his earnings on drinking binges. Meanwhile, Kawase was more than capable of holding his own: when asked by a fawning interviewer if he was Japan's greatest living printmaker, he replied that, as far as he was concerned, he was Japan's only printmaker.

This time of political unrest, social disquiet and artistic innovation came to a shuddering halt on 1 September 1923, when a powerful tremor of 7.8 magnitude struck Japan. The Great Kanto Earthquake devastated Tokyo and levelled the port city of Yokohama, killing more than 150,000 people and leaving some 600,000 homeless. Amid the fires, mob violence broke out. In the chaos, Watanabe's print shop was burnt to the ground, and with it his entire stock of woodblocks.

To many conservatives, the Great Kanto Earthquake was heaven's judgement on the excesses of the Taisho era. A crackdown followed: order was restored, individual freedoms curtailed, and new laws implemented to curtail public displays of dissent. Watanabe's enterprise recovered fast from the disaster, the blocks we recarved, and many of the group's best works were published after the earthquake, but he faced cold new commercial realities. No new generation of artists stepped forward, and Watanabe seemed to retrench, preferring to work with painters his own age.

Then a more aggressive posture on the world stage by Japan's new militarist government brought a sudden end to the Western craze for all things Japanese, and with it, the economic assumptions that underpinned the shin hanga movement. But in this brief fresh blossoming of ukiyo-e – a 'floating world' cultivated anew for the modern age – the fantasy of a more elegant Japan was able to linger, if only for a little while.

Matthew Wilcox writes on Asian art for Apollo, The Economist and The Art Newspaper.

Sale: Fine Japanese Prints, including Property from the Collection of the Late Bertram and Ruth Malenka
New York
Wednesday 20 March at 10am
Enquiries: Jeff Olson +1 212 461 6516

  1. Jeff Olson
    580 Madison Avenue
    New York, United States 10022
    Work +1 212 461 6516
    FaxFax: +1 212 644 9007

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