The artistic themes of Haku Maki in images

by: Chris Koller

For collectors, Haku Maki's images are quickly identifiable when you see a beautiful piece of textured calligraphy, or an almost aboriginal looking linear story, but there are a broader set of themes which Haku Maki explored in his art work. The visual overview below explores these themes.


Early in Maki's career, in the early to mid-1960's, Maki began transitioning away from thin paper into a more textured and embossed style. The beginning of this transition was characterized by his pieces focusing on cells. To me this is a very unique subject for him as we see many of his other themes are tied closely to a new interpretation of Japanese cultural subjects. The cell theme seems to deviate from this. I imagine that it had to do with a unique perspective that he had on the subject. Maki seems to commonly look at things in their most basic forms, and then modify the subject into a unique artistic design. Cells being the basic form of human life, I imagine this may have been him exploring humans at their most basic form. In the cell series, you do see the hint of what is to come with his kanji theme in some of these pieces, although it wasn't until he began working on his poems that you really see the kanji take its form.


To most, Maki's use of kanji as a centerpiece to his artwork is the most recognizable of his many themes. The kanji characters were rarely done to their true form. Instead, Maki creatively, and sometimes playfully, reworked the kanji to tell a complimenting story through the artistic interpretation of the character itself. Below is one of my favorites which we have on view at The Koller Collection.


Haku Maki's poem pieces really are part of the overall kanji theme. I do like to break them out into a distinct category however as they tend to take on a very primitive nature and really peel back the many layers to a kanji character to what it's base graphical character might be. The characters have a hieroglyphic nature to them. You will see the poem theme carried out through his early works in the late 1960's all the way through the 80's, and even re-interpretations of his early works late in his career in the 1990's. I find that the more that you look at his poem's, the more personal meaning you tend to find in them. Below you will find Poem 68-48 which we have on view and is an early interpretation of an image used later in his Festive Wine book titled "Woman".


Haniwa historically were terracotta clay figures which were used as part of the funeral process during the Kofun period in Japan (3rd to 6th centuries AD). Other Sosaku Hanga artists also embraced this theme as part of their art work, Kiyoshi Saito specifically comes to mind. The Haniwa series based on my research seems to have spanned the early to mid 1970's and was fairly limited to only a couple of pieces per year. Similar to his use of kanji, Maki uses a theme central to the Japanese culture, yet applies his own style to the subject.


The theme of ceramics appear in Maki's work as early as the mid-1970's and really became a central them in the late 1970's early 1980's. These pieces focus on traditional Japanese ceramics including tea bowls and sake cups. These ceramic pieces again tie into the core of Japanese culture and help capture the beauty of these vessels used throughout many Japanese households. Although during this period he no longer focuses on kanji as a theme, you do see the kanji theme mixed into the subject of ceramics on some pieces. 

Time: Months / Zodiac Years

Haku Maki visited the theme of time as it relates to the calendar at multiple points during his career. Early in his career he did a series tied to the asian zodiac calendar where he applied his hieroglyphic colorful style which was his common trademark in the late 1960's. Later in his career in the 1970's Maki did a set of prints tied to the calendar months which used bold abstract kanji style characters. I find these to be very beautiful, and even more powerful when displayed together.


Persimmons are a popular autumn fruit in Japan which stem from a number of species of native Japanese / Chinese trees in the Ebenaceae family. The persimmon has been central to Japanese culture throughout the centuries, not only due to the fruit being a staple of the Japanese fall diet, but also due to the many uses of the persimmon tree. Haku Maki began incorporating persimmons into his art work in the 1970s and continued creating unique persimmon focused pieces into the 1980s. The pieces, as you can see below, are very impactful. Although some have commented that the creation of these pieces was driven more by commercial demand of the era than his own personal interest. Either way, the persimmon art he created is an important part of his catalog and in very high demand by collectors.

San Mon Ban

In the mid 1970's Haku Maki began to lose some strength in the right side of his body due to the taxing process of rolling his embossed prints. Given his loss of strength, Maki returned to traditional woodblock prints which he had explored very early in his career. These woodblock prints mostly manifested themselves in small San Mon Ban prints which were small stamp like designs. Haku Maki was able to use these San Mon Ban prints to explore new themese and subjects. These themes ranged from ceramics, to trees to insects.

Late Works

Late in Maki's life, in the 1990's, Maki both deviated from his traditional subjects, as well as re-visited specific pieces which were successful from his past. Some of the pieces which he re-visited were the kanji interpretations of woman, heart and nothing. Maki also experimented with new subjects including shimmer images, traditional chinese go boards, as well as one of his last themes which was sails and sail boats. An example of the go board design can be found below. These new themes mostly used traditional print processes and were not embossed. From my view, although these images sometimes were visually engaging, they did seem to lack the traditional artistic depth that you see from a Maki image.


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