Umetarō Azechi (畦地梅太郎, Japan, 1902-1999) was a sōsaku-hanga artist known for his bold and minimal prints based on the Ainu indigenous tribe of Japan and scenes depicting mountains and moutaineers.
Umetarō Azechi was born on December 28, 1902 in Uwajima, the Ehime prefecture on the island of Shikoku in Japan. Azechi was the son of two farmers and grew up in poverty. From an early age, Azechi taught himself how to draw and was determined to become an artist. In 1920, he moved to Tokyo and worked as a paper deliveryman while taking minor art courses. The “Great Earthquake” of 1923 hit Tokyo though and Azechi returned to his hometown. Despite leaving his life and art lessons in Tokyo, Azechi continued practicing his artistic abilities back home.
In 1925, Azechi eventually returned to Tokyo two years later. He found a government printing job where he had the tools and equipment to train as a printer. During this time in Japan, many artists were acting as their own carvers, printers, and distributors rather than printing through the jurisdiction of a publishing house, a movement known as the sōsaku-hanga (“creative print”) movement. Azechi soon approached the well-known and respected printmaker Un’ichi Hiratsuka (1895-1997) at Hiratsuka’s house to show his portfolio. Hiratsuka was impressed with Azechi’s work and introduced Azechi to two other artists, Koshiro Onchi (1891-1955) and Maekawa Senpan (1888-1960). Hiratsuka also gave Azechi access to gallery contacts and helped him enter exhibitions, including the Nihon Hanga Kyōkai (Japan Print Association) annual show. Azechi also participated in the Nihon Sōsaku-Hanga Kyokai (Japan Creative Print Association) exhibition, the College Women’s Association of Japan’s annual exhibition, and many international exhibitions in countries like England, Brazil, Germany, Switzerland, and the United States. By this time, Azechi quit his printing job and began freelancing full-time on newspaper, book, and personal print illustrations. Additionally, Azechi participated in all three print biennales in Sao Paulo, Lugano, and Tokyo. He also contributed his work to the book “One Hundred New Views of Japan” with other sōsaku-hanga artists.
By the late 1940s, Azechi produced a series of prints based on mountain scenes and mountaineers in simplified forms of bold and flat areas. Azechi dedicated his life to the mountains and would embark on summit climbs regularly up until his eighties. Azechi produced a couple of books about the mountains in Japan and the sport of mountaineering. Azechi’s other prints depict folk characters of people and animals rendered with flat, bold shapes and minimal detail based on the history and culture of the Ainu indigenous tribe. Azechi’s art appear to be or have been described by viewers as “primitive” or “rough,” whereas art historians and art critics believe Azechi’s style is “sharp” and “honed.” Azechi focused on each and every line and used repetition and balance in his work to highlight the subject matter. Additionally, Azechi wrote one book titled “Japanese Woodblock Prints: Their Techniques and Appreciation,” published by Toto Shuppan in 1963. Azechi’s work demonstrates mid-century modernism and early elements of graphic design - yet remains timeless.
Umetarō Azechi died in 1999 at the age of 97. Azechi’s prints can be found in numerous collections and major museums like the Art Institute of Chicago, Achenbach Foundation in San Francisco, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Machida City Museum of Graphic Art, and the British Museum in London.