Discover: Kawase Hasui - A Life in Pursuit of Beauty

February 06, 2019 9 min read

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.

Shiba, Tokyo - Photo - 1890

Shiba, Tokyo in 1890

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.

Ginza, Toky 1902 - Old Photo

Ginza, Tokyo in 1902

Ginza Tokyo, in 1960 - Photo

Ginza, Tokyo by the 1960's, after Japan's rapid transformation

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.

Araki Kanpo - Kawse Hasui's Tutor

Araki Kanpo, Hasui's first well-known tutor

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.

Kaburagi Kiyokata Photo

Kiyokata rejected Hasui on the basis of his age - deeming him too old to be taught

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.

Young Kawase Hasui Photo

A young Kawase Hasui (1910)

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.

Watanabe Shozaburo - Kawase Hasui's Publisher - Photo

Watanabe Shozaburo - the publisher responsible for the Shin Hanga ("New Prints") movement and lifelong partner of Kawase Hasui

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.

Sketches made while in Tokyo resulted in the initial three prints of the Twelve Scenes of Tokyo series, published in the summer of 1919. (Such as at Komagata river bank, seen below).

Komagata River Bank - 1919 - By Kawase Hasui - Rising Sun Prints

Komagata River Bank (1919) - Buy this print here >>

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.

 

Yuhi Waterfall in Shiobara - By Kawase Hasui - 1920

 

Yuhi Waterfall in Shiobara (1920) - Buy this print here >>

Hasui's landscape prints were made from designs based on sketches created on his travels - whether that was walking through Tokyo or on his longer trips around wider Japan. His working pattern was shaped by life on the road, beginning his days early so that he could sketch in the morning light, and continuing until it was too dark to see. Back at the inn in the evening, Hasui would bathe, eat and with sake as his companion, add color to his sketches.

Upon his return, he continued to sketch around Tokyo, producing 8 more prints for the Twelve Views of Tokyo series in 1920.

Kamino Bridge Fukagawa - Buy Print by Kawase Hasui

Kamino Bridge, Fukagawa (1920) - Buy this print here >>

1921 was a banner year for Shin-Hanga in general and Hasui in particular. In June, Watanabe sponsored the “New Creative Print Exhibition” at the Shirokaya department store in Tokyo’s Nihonbashi district. Of the 11 artists participating, Hasui was the best-represented, with 39 prints - almost his entire catalog to-date.

Shirokaya Department Store - Tokyo - Old Photo from 1910

The Shirokaya department store in Nihonbashi, Tokyo, where Shozaburo exhibited Hasui's prints, amongst other Shin Hanga artists

In February 1921, he began a long excursion around western Japan and in August, traveled to the north-west. From these trips came the 22 print series Souvenirs of Travel, Second Series.

Ship in Bingo District - 1923 - Print by Kawase Hasui

Ship in Bingo District (1923) - Buy this print here >>

1922 saw a second exhibition at the Shirokiya department store, and a major trip by Hasui. This time he explored the western-most provinces of Honshu as well as Kyushu. The new sketches became the 36 prints in the series Selection of Scenes of Japan, which was sold on subscription to the Ukiyo-e study group.

Disaster Strikes

In the spring of 1923, Hasui exhibited paintings at the Hometown club show for the last time. The summer was quiet for him, but the lull would end dramatically.

At two minutes before noon on 1 September, Hasui was riding in a streetcar in Tokyo’s Ginza district. The Great Kanto earthquake struck and plunged the city into chaos.

He immediately ran to his home nearby,helping his wife and relatives evacuate as fires broke out around the city, engulfing Tokyo’s largely wooden architecture.

When he returned the next day, he found his house, as well as Watanabe’s print shop had been burnt to the ground.

Great Kanto Earthquake Damage - In Tokyo - Old Photo

The earthquake caused widespread fires and devastation of buildings in Tokyo and Yokohama

Hasui lost 188 sketchbooks, as well as most of his prints and woodblocks. Hardly anything survived.

A month after the quake, Watanabe encouraged Hasui to set off on another long tour, to inspire a fresh wave of creativity.

The trip would result in many new prints for Souvenirs of Travel, Third Series.

Rising From the Ashes

As Tokyo was being rebuilt in 1925, Hasui returned to his usual productive mode, creating several series of landscape prints. He also created what would become his most popular work “Snow at Zojo Temple, Shiba”

Snow at Zojoji Temple, Shiba - 1925 Print by Kawase Hasui

Snow at Zojo-ji Temple, Shiba (1925) - Buy this print here >>

The first work in Twenty Views of Tokyo, the print was republished in runs of 200 in 1933, and 2,500 more later, for a total of 3000 impressions.

He travelled to the northern prefecture of Akita in 1926 and Hokuriku district in September, producing sketches for the Selections of Scenes of Japan. In November, he moved to Omori in south-west Tokyo.

In 1926 and 27, he supplied more prints to the Twenty Views of Tokyo and Souveniers of Travel, Third Series.

Moon at Magome - 1930 - Print by Kawase Hasui

Moon at Magome, from Twenty Scenes of Tokyo - Buy this print here >>

A trip to the islands of Shikoku and Kyushu followed in 1928. He submitted some of these sketches for prints for Souvenirs of Travel, Third Series.

Starlit night at Miyajima - Print by Kawase Hasui

Starlit Night at Miyajima Shrine (1928) - Buy this print here >>

Between 1929 and 1932, Watanabe would continue to organize exhibitions of his “New Prints”, with Hasui’s work at the fore. It sold well and had great commercial appeal both in Japan and at the Special Exhibition of Modern Japanese Prints, held at the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio, in 1930.

Benten Pond - Shiba - 1929 print by Kawase Hasui

Benten Pond, Shiba (1929) - Buy this print here >>

In 1931, Hasui worked on Selected Views of the Tokaido, his interpretation of the subject matter that made Hiroshige’s name.

1932 he travelled to Tohoku and Hokkaido regions to begin the series Collection of Scenic Views of Japan, Eastern Edition.

In 1933, he visited Nara, Kyoto and Osaka in the Kansai region, commencing the Collection of Scenic Views, Kansai Edition.

To gather more material, he departed for Shikoku and the Kansai region in the early spring of 1934. And in late summer, he went north to the Tohoku region to add to the Collection of Scenic Views of Japan, Eastern Edition.

The mid 1930’s were a period of exploration for Hasui, and he tried some more experimental prints and series with other publishers, to less success. His work with Watanabe was generally confined to single prints, often featuring Mount Fuji.

Hasui, continued to travel, but as a concession to his age, the trips were generally shorter and often to resort areas adjacent to Tokyo.

In 1935, he visited the lakes Ashinoko, Yamanakako and Kawaguchiko.

In 1937, he journeyed to the Izu peninsula and then Nikko.

The Road to Nikko - Print by Kawase Hasui

Road to Nikko (1930) - Buy this print here >>

Mastery and Pursuit of Beauty - Even in the Face of War

Despite the chaos and violence of world war II, Hasui maintained his focus on finding and capturing the beauty of his native Japan. Looking at these prints from 1942/3, one would have no idea this was an artist in a nation in the midst of a brutal war.

Kishu Lake - Toro - Print by Kawase Hasui

Toro, Kishu (1943) - Buy this print here >>

 Azuma Gorge Print by Kawase Hasui - 1943

Azuma Gorge (1943) - Buy this print here >>

Hasui continued a steady flow of printmaking, with his around 15 works per year published between 1946 and 1948. These were made by Watanabe’s studio based on ink drafts sent by Hasui, who was still in Shiobara. In March 1948, Hasui returned to Tokyo. In late spring he resumed his sketch tours, travelling along the inland sea en route to northern Kyushu.

In 1950, Hasui made his last trips, going to Nara in April and in the autumn to Ise Shrine, then along the coast of the Kii peninsula and on to Kyoto. New sketches resulted in 34 published prints in 1950 and 51.

Death and Legacy

From 1952, Hasui’s productivity declined to around half a dozen prints a year until his death in 1957.

In 1952, the Minstry of Education decided to designate woodblock printing techniques an Intangible Cultural Asset. Hasui and Shinsui were commissioned to produce one print each to celebrate the announcement.

Hasui’s finished print - “Snow at Zojo Temple” was accompanied by cultural scholar Narazaki Muneshige’s official record:

“Although Hasui is not well known in Japan, he is famous abroad. Hokusai, Hiroshige and Hasui are the three greatest woodblock print artists of Japan…”

Suffering from gastric cancer, Hasui was hospitalized in February 1957. During the spring, he submitted his final design to Watanabe. For the last work, “Hall of the golden Hue, Hiraizumi” Hasui made multiple drafts and chose most of the color from his hospital bed. He died on 27 November 1957. Watanabe’s shop completed the print and distributed it to attendees at the memorial service held for Hasui, on the 100 day anniversary of his passing.

Hall of the Golden Hue Iraizumi - 1957 print by Kawase Hasui

Hall of the Golden Hue, Hiraizumi (1957) - Buy this print here >>


Join Our Newsletter Club