Transcending Reality: The Woodcuts of Kōsaka Gajin through May 7, 2017 at the Cincinnati Art Museum

May 6th, 2017  |  Published in *, April 2017

Kōsaka Gajin (1887–1953), Japanese, Nara, Todai-ji, 1952, woodcut, Centennial Gift of The Howard and Carline Porter Collection

Cincinnati continues to harness the landscape lion: the Taft Museum exhibition of 2016, Daubigny, Monet, Van Gogh: Impressions of Landscape and two more stunners, the Cincinnati Art Museum’s Picturing the West: Masterworks of 19th-Century Landscape Photography and Van Gogh: Into the Undergrowth. Anyone fortunate enough to have seen all three exhibitions last year must certainly appreciate her or his good fortune. Going into nature, whether with sketchbooks, bulky cameras on mule packs, or with a portable easel strapped to his back as Van Gogh did, is what artists do who work with nature as subject. Because of their efforts, they invite us to venture out and experience nature ourselves.

A new landscape experience is offered up for visitors for 2017. Looking to the east, Kristen Spangenberg, Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Cincinnati Art Museum, has mounted the first solo exhibition in the United States of an important Japanese printmaker, Kosaka Gajin.
What should you expect when you view Gajin’s woodcuts? Expect to be taken in by the monumentality of his vision, the Zen-like simplicity of his forms, and the seductive nature of his special woodcut techniques. Occupying the same space as the just-concluded Van Gogh exhibition, the Japanese woodcut prints of Kosaka Gajin fill the space with surprises, such as his placement of landscape or architectural form or line in relation to the white space of the delicate Japanese paper. The artist captures the essence of his subject matter. He blurs the distinction between line and form to great effect. The curve of a temple roofline is bold and thick; two mirrored arcs convey the whole roof. The crenellation in a rock is described to us in three bold and jagged, thick lines, becoming descriptive shapes. We immediately feel it is a rock. An entire rocky shore and distant sea is made clear to us with so few shapes it makes you reflect on and question the fussiness of much of Western art. And the artist has captured the essence of Zen in art.

In Western art, oil painting has retained primacy well into the twentieth century. In the East, ink, especially sumi ink, is paramount and is used on silk or thin paper. Some of the best papers are made from mulberry bark so here we have a full embrace of the generosity of trees, for paper and for ink. Sumi ink is made from pine soot and can appear to be as ethereal as smoke or mist when it is diluted with water. At full strength, it has authority as pure, dense, warm black. Asian artists revere its range. In the hands of a master artist, sumi ink paintings are a meditation on what the artist expresses of his or her inner vision. It is never a trompe l‘oeil rendition of what is before the artist. In the Western tradition, the pen and quill drawings of Rembrandt and Van Gogh share this focus on essence and economy.

Gajin’s woodblock prints look as if they are sumi ink paintings. Gajin uses delicate Japanese paper that is purposely unsized, meaning it doesn’t have a thin coating of a starchy transparent liquid that slightly stiffens the paper. More importantly, with no sizing, the paper soaks up the ink so that the ink wicks to the back of the paper and bleeds a little at the edges. This is why his prints look like sumi paintings. Gajin credits his teacher Matsuo Jun’ichiro for introducing him to this method.

So Gajin has now combined two innovative elements, first blurring the distinction between line and form (there are no thin outlines around forms in his prints like there are in traditional Japanese prints.) His lines become so robust they are the forms he creates to convey his image. Second, he risks failure by using unsized paper and allowing the natural wicking of the ink to the backside of the paper to add accidental expressive richness to his landscapes and architectural imagery. The soft, feathery edges heighten the meditative feel of all his artwork.

The making of a traditional Japanese print requires extreme control with each step and each layer (if the print is multi-colored.) This is clearly a strength and marvel of traditional Japanese prints. Gajin banishes such rigid control. He was part of the new, freer print movement in Japan at the time which is called sosaku-hanga, meaning “creative print.” The artist is in full control of the drawing, carving and printing of the print. Japanese artists’ exposure to German Expressionist art helped to fuel this movement. In 1914, a significant exhibition of important German Expressionist artists was mounted in Tokyo at the Hibija Exhibition Hall when Gajin was thirty-seven and had been an elementary school teacher. In 1922, Gajin made his first woodblock prints in the sosaku-hanga vein and exhibited with the Japan Creative Print Society.

An important element to be discussed here is Gajin’s lifelong involvement with art education. By the late 1920’s he founded and was president of an educational group for art teachers and by the early 30’s was advisor to the Ministry of Education. He published important articles on children’s drawings and theory pieces on drawing and of art education. Curator Spangenberg states in the exhibition catalog, “His observations and study of the innocence of children’s art would influence his postwar woodcuts.”

World War II and the March, 1945 Allied Forces firebombing of Tokyo changed everything. Gajin lost most of his artwork and he, his wife and his children evacuated to his wife’s family home in Sendai, Japan. Artists lost everything and had no choice but to begin anew. So the fifty prints in this exhibition are from this new period of Kosaka Gajin’s artistic output.

Kōsaka Gajin (1887–1953), Japan, A Temple Gate, Kyoto, 1952, woodcut, The Howard and Caroline Porter Collection

 

Kōsaka Gajin (1887–1953), Japan, Castle Tower, 1952, woodcut, The Howard and Caroline Porter Collection

Comparing Gajin’s Temple Gate with his Castle Tower demonstrates this exquisite command of form/line. In Temple Gate, the forms are so robust, we are struck by the monumentality of the temple as we viewers stand at the gate. The shapes of the temple gate jostle for space and breathe upward and outward. There are only eight commanding forms that undulate together and two small ink notations on the left. Two swaths of white space complete the compositions: in the foreground, where we the visitor stands, and above on the left and right to represent sky. The woodcut is full of energy, economy and spiritual simplicity. Castle Tower lifts us into the sky by the perfect decrease in scale of each roofline and perfect cropping of the tower so we don’t see the top of it. We have to imagine it. We are lost, looking up to observe the tower’s grandeur.
The United States occupied Japan from 1945-1952. Here began a robust period of Western patronage of Japanese prints. In 1949, Ganji and his family returned to Tokyo. Gajin, now sixty-eight years old, came into prominence as a leading artist in the shin-hanga group of artists. Around this time, Mrs. Ryder, wife of the U.S. Army commander took notice of Ganji’s prints and arranged an exhibition of them at the Municipal Gallery, Los Angeles. By 1952, when he was seventy-five, he was finally recognized in his homeland with a solo exhibition at the Sendai Exhibition Hall. At the time of his passing, an exhibit of his work was in preparation in Paris and his prints were included in a revised edition of Japanese Woodblock Prints.

Kosaka Ganji’s life was bittersweet, with recognition coming late to him but given his dedication to the study of art of children, and to his enduring legacy via his large body of woodblock prints, he is remembered reverently.

Special mention should be made of Howard and Caroline Porter of Cincinnati, early collectors of Japanese sosaku-hanga and of Ganji’s prints. The Porters were in Japan and in Guam between 1945-59. The Porter Collection, from which this exhibition is curated, is the largest collection of Ganji’s artwork outside the family in Japan. Mary Baskett, the museum’s former curator of prints (1965-71), has shared her ongoing research on the artist for this exhibition, and Baskett assisted Kristen Spangenberg in the expansion of the Howard and Caroline Porter Collection into what is now a major collection of 20th century Japanese prints.

Featured alongside Transcending Reality is Dressed to Kill: Japanese Arms and Armor, an in-depth look at Japanese Samurai culture and arts from the 16th–19th centuries. Joint tickets allow entry to both special exhibitions. More information is at cincinnatiartmuseum.org or at the art museum.

Cynthia Kukla is an artist and professor emerita living in Northern Kentucky

Comments are closed.