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Discover: Kawase Hasui - A Life in Pursuit of Beauty

On 18 May 1883, Kawase Hasui’s parents celebrated the birth of their first son, whom they named Bunjiro (he would acquire his own name as an artist, later). The Kawase family home was behind their shop in Tokyo’s Shiba ward, part of the “low city”, an area where the locals ran businesses serving the government and military elite.

In Hasui’s lifetime, he would see Japan realize its tremendous and rapid transformation from the agrarian, traditional Japan of old to a modern, industrialized nation. His 74 years passed through periods of cultural upheaval, natural disaster and ruinous war.

Yet, in the face of all this, his art would maintain a transcendent serenity throughout.

Early Life

When he was 7, Hasui entered primary school. Later, he recalled that his favorite part of the school day was on his way home, when he would stop at the local picture-book shop to look at actor and warrior prints. Inspired, he would copy illustrations from the serialized stories in the newspapers.

At age twelve, a severe bout of trachoma forced Hasui to leave school. Two years later he asked to pursue his inspiration and study at an artists atelier. His mother was able to set the young Hasui up with weekly lessons under the tutelage of a trained painter.

Under his tutor, Hasui copied designs from porcelain and learned basic brushwork techniques; but due to his father’s opposition, he was forced to quit after only a year. He was the heir to the family business and as such, his father was determined that Hasui was to focus on preparing to take over and run the enterprise.

His father’s trade in braided cord was rooted in tradition, but was adapting to the influence of trends in Western fashion flowing into Japan at the time. Hasui’s painting would echo this approach later in life.

During this period of commercial apprenticeship, Hasui spent his time in frustrated stasis, indulging his love of art by tracing old art prints for several years.

Eventually he found a point of weakness in his father's resolve. At age 19, he promised his father that he would indeed eventually take over the family business, and in return he was permitted to study part-time with Araki Kan’yu, a relative of the painter Araki Kanpo.

In the spirit of compromise, he pursued his artistic training in parallel with his study of bookkeeping, English and other subjects at a commercial night school.

This arrangement was a welcome step towards the life of an artist. However, it proved to be a false dawn.

Hasui languished for the next 5 years, unable to fully express his true nature due to his responsibilities. 

It seemed as though he was not destined for an artistic life...

That was until, unexpectedly, his sister Aya married a shop employee and the couple took over the business. At age 25, Hasui was liberated from his family obligations.

He was finally free to devote himself to his art.

He attempted to enter the atelier of Kaburagi Kiyokata, the leading proponent of figure painting in the Nihonga style - or Japanese painting - known for its use of traditional materials.

His hopes would soon turn to dismay.

The master turned Hasui away because of his age - he was deemed too old to begin his training. Despite Kiyokata's rejection, he did suggest that Hasui try his hand at oil painting.

On his recommendation, Hasui joined the famed White Horse Society, where he studied under another established figure painter of the time. He continued to work in the traditional Nihonga style on the side, however, and would regularly take his work to show Kiyokata, hoping that he would change his mind.

Another year passed.

In 1910, he again appealed to study formally with Kiyokata. This time he was accepted.

During his spell under the master, he avidly copied magazine illustrations, the prints of Utagawa Kuniyoshi and Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, as well as the drawings of Kiyokata himself.

In 1913, after 3 years of intense practice, Hasui found his first employment as an artist drawing advertisements. He worked as a commercial artist until 1923, designing covers and illustrations both books and magazines. From what little remains, it appears he worked in Kiyokata’s style.

Discovery

In 1915, Hasui exhibited as part of the Hometown Society, the newly formed organization of Kiyokata’s pupils. The following year he made 20 landscape and figure paintings for a gallery in Tokyo. Young print entrepreneur Watanabe Shozaburo was there, scouting for new talent for his stable of artists and Shin Hanga ("new prints") movement. Shozaburo connected with Ito Shinsui and published one of his prints, but passed on Hasui. Nevertheless, the link between Shozaburo and the Hometown Society was formed.

In 1917, Hasui married Yoshikawa Ume, and the couple moved to a house not far from the Kawase family shop. Once again, the Hometown Society gave an exhibition of their artist’s work, and Hasui was struck by fellow artist Ito Shinsui’s series - Eight Views of Omi (Lake Biwa), a series of landscape prints.

Impressed by Shinsui’s prints and feeling a kindred spirit with the works, he took some of his own designs (sketches from a hot-spring resort) to Watanabe. He responded positively and encouraged Hasui to submit three more designs for experimental prints, which were published in 1918.

A vital creative partnership was formed. Hasui and Watanabe would go on to design and publish over 600 landscape prints over the next 43 years.

An Artist is Born

Hasui and his wife had no children for many years, which allowed him to fully focus on his vocation. Energised by the new direction, Hasui threw himself into his art and a restless pursuit of beauty.

In 1919, he travelled to northern Japan and his new drawings made there would form the first six prints of his series Souvenirs of Travel, First Series.