Known for his exquisite landscape prints, Kawase Hasui was one of the most prolific and talented shin hanga artists of the early 20th century. He designed hundreds of woodblock prints, mainly for the publisher Watanabe Shozaburo. Hasui’s earliest prints were destroyed in an the 1923 Kanto earthquake and they were never reprinted. Hasui’s great pre-earthquake prints are extremely rare and are some of the most sought-after shin hanga prints. Hokusai, Hiroshige and Hasui are the three most important landscape woodblock print artists of Japan. Like Hiroshi Yoshida, many of his print designs were based on his watercolors and sketches of scenic places throughout Japan. In 1953, the Japanese government wanted to honor Hasui as a Living National Treasure but realizing the collaborative nature of his prints, they decided to commission a special woodblock print instead. This print, Snow at Zojoji Temple, was designated as an Intangible Cultural Treasure, a great honor for Hasui and for the craftsmen that made his prints possible.
Hasui was born with the given name Bunjiro in Tokyo as the son of a merchant family. As a child Hasui learned to paint in Western style. His first teacher was Saburosuke Okada who taught him watercolor and oil painting.
His family was not very happy about his art ambitions and blocked him in many ways. They wanted Hasui to work in the family business. The conflict was solved when his sister married a shop employee and took over the business.
At the age of 26 Kawase tried to be accepted as a student by Kiyokata Kaburagi, a painter in traditional Japanese style. But Kaburagi considered him to be too old and rejected him. Kawase tried it again two years later and was finally accepted. Kiyokata soon recognized the talents of his student and introduced him to Watanabe Shozaburo. Kiyokata gave Hasui his artist’s name in 1910. In 1916 he met the publisher Shozaburo Watanabe. In 1918 Hasui saw and was inspired by Ito Shinsui’s “Eight Views of Lake Biwa” which were being shown at a Kyodokai exhibition. Hasui submitted sketches to Watanabe and so began the collaboration that started in 1918 and continued into the 1950s.
While the majority of his prints were published by Watanabe, Hasui also worked with Kawaguchi/Sakai between 1929 to 1932.
Kawase had a tight and lifelong cooperation with the publisher Watanabe Shozaburo. Watanabe was the initiator and driving commercial force of the shin hanga movement. When traditional ukiyo-e printmaking was close to extinction, he commissioned Hasui, Shinsui, and for a short period Goyo and Hiroshi Yoshida to revive the traditional Japanese landscape and bijin prints. Watanabe’s business idea was to target these prints at art lovers. Before, ukiyo-e was a kind of mass consumer product. In this function it had no chance against photography and by the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth century it seemed to be doomed to disappear.
The artist, Hasui, created over one hundred woodblock prints between 1918 and 1923 – all published by Watanabe Shozaburo. Most of these “new style” prints were exported – mainly to the United States. On September 1, 1923, Japan was hit by one of the worst earthquakes in history. About 140,000 people died in the Kanto earthquake The center of the earthquake was in the Tokyo and Yokohama area.
Watanabe’s print shop was destroyed by the fire and with it all of Kawase’s print blocks. Also, the home of the artist and with it his sketchbooks were destroyed. Kawase and Watanabe had to start again from scratch.
Kawase was the master of landscape prints. Famous are his night scene prints and the designs showing snow fall or rain. Like no other artist he was capable of creating moods with his designs.
The artist’s landscape prints hardly ever show people. Instead, a deserted street creates peaceful, but also strange and eerie feelings.
Hasui’s working style is an additional explanation why his designs show rarely people. They were hard to sketch as they were not static.
Hasui was involved during the whole production process of cutting the blocks (one for each color plus a key block for the outlines). But the final product was the result of the teamwork of him, the carver, the printer and last but not least of the publisher. One can assume that especially Watanabe had rather distinctive ideas what a shin hanga should look like to sell well. Hasui himself commented that some of the prints looked better and some worse than his original sketches.
Hasui was a small, short-sighted man. He had to wear thick eye-glasses. In order to sketch details he had to go close to an object. His life on the road was expensive. The artist never became rich, but he could make a living as a full-time printmaker. He had lost his home twice. First by the 1923 earthquake and then again by the air bombardments of Tokyo during world war II.
Hasui was described as a conservative, more retrograde personality. He preferred the kimono to a western suit and liked Japanese sake.
His last print, “Hall of the golden hue, Hiraizumi” was finished in 1957, the year of his death. Hasui was suffering from cancer and had supervised the early process of production from his hospital bed. But he was no longer able to see the final print. Watanabe distributed it to friends and acquaintances of the artist at the occasion of a memorial service for the deceased master of Japanese woodblock printmaking on March 6, 1958.
For art professionals and serious collectors of Hasui Kawase prints, there is a reference book available in two volumes with the complete works of the artist.
Los Angeles County Museum
Honolulu Museum of Art
Birmingham Museum of Art
Museum of Fine Arts Boston
San Diego Museum of Art
Harvard Art Museum