“Art is not something that can be grasped by the mind, it is understood by the heart. If one goes back to its origin, painting expresses the heart in color and form, and it must not be limited to the world of reflected forms captured by sight.” - Kōshirō Onchi on the process and philosophy of the sōsaku-hanga (“creative print”) movement.
The visual and artistic culture around the world changed as a result of the First and Second World Wars. Like the Modernists and Impressionists in Europe and the Abstract Expressionists in America, unconventional, non-objective, and abstract art stepped to the forefront of artistic representation. Personal expression and contemplation forged a new, intrinsic form of art that reevaluated the world. Japan, especially, saw a new generation of artists who were interested in creating works of art that demonstrated their individualistic perspectives, rather than traditional methods of art making. Kōshirō Onchi (1891-1955) was one of the pioneering Japanese artists who pushed the boundaries of the production of art solely for commercial consumption and naturalistic representation by creating artwork on his own terms. His legacy earned him the title as father of the sōsaku-hanga, or “creative print,” movement that emerged in twentieth century, post-war Japan.
Onchi’s exploration of creating art was based on the philosphy that the artist has complete control of the production of the work from its inception to completion. The sōsaku-hanga practice advocated self-drawn, self-carved, self-printed pieces. He began this artistic pursuit simply because of his rebellion and disinterest in academic and societal conformity with the production of art. Onchi wanted to create his own style of art – an act that started an artistic revolution in the early to mid-twentieth century of Japan amidst the ending of the First World War and the entirety of the Second World War. Onchi outlined and described the process of sōsaku-hanga in his book, The Modern Hanga of Japan, writing, “The virtue of [sōsaku] 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…[sōsaku] hanga rejects the accidental and rejects ornamentation.” It is even said by Onchi and other pioneering sōsaku-hanga artists that the first diversion from traditional Japanese printmaking to sōsaku-hanga was the discovery that the round carving tool for woodblock printing embedded deeper into the material and created a new, interesting mark. Onchi claimed that this discovery “led to a widening of the expressive range of the artist’s command,” an important shift in technique that enabled artists more controlled, yet creative liberties.
In 1913, Onchi created the print and poetry magazine titled Tsukuhae (“Reflection of the Moon” or “Moonglow”) with fellow Tokyo Academy of Art classmates Tanaka Kyokichi (1892-1915) and Fujimori Shizuo (1891-1943). Onchi, Kyokichi, and Shizuo were determined to create and disseminate artwork and poetry they believed reflected the modern times and concerns of their generation during the widespread social and political changes. The collective group took cues from early twentieth century independent publications like the art magazines Hosun, Kamen, and Gendai no Yoga, as well as the poetry magazine Myojo. Hosun, published for the first itme in 1907, incorporated illustrations made by amine doban (mesh-work etchings), zinc ioppan and rekiban (lithographs), and mokuhan (woodblock prints). Onchi credited the two publications and its founders in his book, The Modern Hanga of Japan, as the “seedling beds” that germinated the sōsaku-hanga movement, which was founded on the basis that individual artists working in skillful, revolutionary (and at the time, “fringe”), and creative techniques were permitted the opportunity to share their work.Tsukuhae was the first known project that spawned Onchi’s lifelong dedication to create abstract work and revered the artists that set the foundation for the sōsaku-hanga movement.
Onchi is credited to producing the first abstract print in Japan – the first known major artistic stray from the centuries old production of ukiyo-e and shin hanga prints. The Lyrique series were his first professional abstract series after his work with Tsukuhae and contributions to published book designs and illustrations. The series was based on musical compositions from classical Western musicians and Japanese composers like Moroi Saburô (1903-1977) and Yamada Kôsaku (1886-1965). He was also inspired by the medium of music after hearing Japan’s leading violinist Suwa Nejiko’s (1920-2012) performance based on her suffering from the Second World War. The artist created more work like Lyrique, which illustrated the abstract interpretation of the descriptive titles he gave a single work or series.
Onchi wrote that the key to deciphering which works embody the the spirit of sōsaku-hanga lay in the artist’s ability to demonstrate a skillful manipulation and transformation of “incorrect error[s]” with control. He emphasized that prints, especially, show slight variations, but are successful manifestations of sōsaku-hanga if the artist’s handling of the experimented technique and medium are consistent. Onchi described works that do not show a mastery of experimented material with consistent technique as “obvious failures.” He emphasized that sōsaku-hanga carries some merit and artistic value – “certain attributes, certain features, which are not obtainable by the direct methods.” Critics and academic institutions of art would deem any mistake or accidental error with material as amateur or degenerate. However, Onchi’s argument about the freedom to express through the artists’s command of controlled error, is the core essence of the sōsaku-hanga movement. Onchi himself experimented with various materials to create visual elements such as value, texture, and depth with objects and materials like foam, paper, cardboard, string, leaves, fins of fish, charcoal – anything that came close to expressing what he was trying to convey through his work.
Throughout his career, Onchi showed his work in countless exhibitions and fairs, created over 1,000 book designs, participated in numerous artist groups, and established the Ichimokukai (The First Thursday Society) - a monthly group of sōsaku-hanga artists. Onchi passed on the technique and philosophy of sōsaku-hanga to a new generation of artists such as Junichirō Sekino (1914–1988), Shinagawa Takumi (1908-2009) and Reika Iwami (b. 1927), who continued to exphasize the importance of individual expression and creative freedom. Even during Onchi’s life, Japan and the international art world began to recognize and accept sōsaku-hanga movement as fine art. Today, sōsaku-hanga works, especially by Kōshirō Onchi are highly sought after and studied. Throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, art critics and historians from Oliver Statler (1915-2002) to Kuwahara Noriko have written about Onchi’s influence and impact on the sōsaku-hanga movement. Additionally, modern and contemporary Japanese and international artists continue to look to the sōsaku-hanga movement as an inspirational and integral part of their practice. Just recently, in 2016, the National Museum of Modern Art held a retrospective and produced an extensive catalog raisonné of Onchi’s work.
Onchi concluded his book, The Modern Hanga of Japan, by stating, “It is only by your own perception that you will understand [sōsaku-hanga], and not by what anyone says in talking or writing about it…You have to look at the works of art themselves before you discover the truth about them.”
More information about Kōshirō Onchi can be found in his biography.
Hisae, Fujii. "Kōshirō Onchi's Prints." Kōshirō Onchi and Tsukuhae (National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, 1976).
Matsumoto Tôru, Kumada Tsukasa, Inoue Yoshiko. Onchi Kōshirō (Tokyo: National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo and the Museum of Modern Art, Wakayama, exhibition catalgoue, 2016).
Noriko, Kuwahara. Study of Onchi Kōshirō: Modernity in Japanese Prints [Onchi Kôshirô kenkyû hanga no modanizumu], (Tokyo: Serica Shobô, 2012).
Noriko, Kuwahara. "On Onchi Kōshirō’s 'Lyric on musical composition' series: a case study of Japanese abstract painting in the 1930s" [Onchi Kôshirô no ‘gakkyoku ni yoru jojô’ shiriizu o megutte: 1930 nendai no Nihon no chōshō kaiga ni kansuru ichi kōsatsu. Bigaku [Aesthetics], (Bigakukai: Japanese Society for Aesthetics, 2003).
Onchi, Kōshirō. “The Modern Japanese Print: An Internal History of the Sōsaku-Hanga Movement” (1953), transl. Osamu Ueda & C.H. Mitchell. Ukiyo-e Art (Ukiyo-e Geijutsu), No. 11, (The Japan Ukiyo-e Society,1965): 2-24.