By the late 19th century, Japanese printmaking was the most influential art form in the world. At home, however, it was dying…
In 1853, the American Navy ended Japan’s 200-years of isolation. Terrified of colonization by the rapacious Western powers, the Japanese made the decision to modernize as quickly as possible. The result of this was a vast legislative program optimistically titled the Civilisation and Enlightenment Reforms – a slavish adoption of of western bourgeois social values – which included a ban on public nudity.
This was bad news for artists generally, and worse for printmakers. Printmakers (who had long enjoyed a nice little sideline in pornography), jarred with the new public morality, and so by the time of Hiroshi Yoshida’s (1876-1950) birth, the craft had never been in worse shape. Prints were increasingly stylistically stale; they were often ineptly crafted; or made on worn out or clumsily copied blocks. The cheap bright dyes introduced by the West only served to highlight what seemed a terminal decline: old prints were routinely crumpled up and used as packing material for the cheap trade goods exported en masse to fund modernisation. As Yoshida himself later commented in his book, Japanese Wood Block Printing, “Those artists who have followed the style of the Edo Period have fallen short of the achievements of that era. They have only achieved poor imitations.”
Ultimately, the study of Western art and culture was to prove the salvation of printmaking in Japan. In London and Paris, the discarded prints that had been used as packaging found their way into the hands of artists and collectors. They became a major source of inspiration for the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists such as Van Gogh, Whistler, Monet, and Toulouse-Lautrec.
As a young man, Yoshida trained as an artist in the then fashionable Western style and traveled to the US. He arranged a show of his work at the Detroit Art Gallery, followed by more exhibitions around the country. The money he raised allowed him to continue his travels. At this time, he wasproducing conventional paintings.
In the early 1920s, after almost 20 years as one of the leading Western-style artists in Japan, Yoshida met and was inspired by the publisher Shozaburo Watanabe, whose shin-hanga movement was revitalizing printmaking. The attentions of the Impressionists, and the insatiable European demand for prints, had led the Japanese to reassess their appraise. At the age of 47, Yoshida decided to switch fields.
His first two major series of prints, produced in 1925, featured places and scenes he had witnessed on his trips to the US and Europe. He continued to draw upon foreign scenes and sights, accumulated on trips through India, Central Asia, China and Korea, as well as eventually turning his hand to more traditional Japanese themes. He mastered every stage of the printmaking process, and was known to sometimes even carve the blocks himself, helping turn what had traditionally been a collective process into one of individual expression. Inspired by the Impressionists, his works are marked by their brilliant use of color and light.
Yoshida had been born in the turbulent aftermath of the collapse of Japanese feudalism. His life spanned not only a cultural blossoming but also civil war, revolution, triumph and the bitter dawn of the nuclear age. Yoshida’s work bridged the chasm between these wildly disparate eras and provided an invaluable link with the artistic heritage of Japan.