Japanese artist Kiyoshi Saito did not have it easy. Nature endowed him with an impulse for art and the drive to make the impossible possible. Saito studied European artists to recognize the qualities in the Japanese tradition itself, for which the modern international trends strive. His woodblock prints using traditional Japanese technique are among the most sought after pieces in the art market.
Kiyoshi Saito was born in 1907 in a small village named Bange in the Kawanuma District of the Fukushima prefecture in the northern part of Honshu, the main Japanese island. When he was five years old, his father lost his business in Fukushima and the family moved further north to the island of Hokkaido, where his father worked in the coal mines in Otaru. When Kiyoshi Saito was thirteen years old, his mother died and he himself was sent away to become the guardian of a buddhist temple. He tried to escape but failed. Nevertheless the priests allowed him to return home.
Saito then went to Hokkaido, where he took on a sign painting apprenticeship, which could have provided him a living for several years. At that time he dreamed of becoming a painter and he began to sketch gypsum casts at night. He founded his first sign painting business before his twentieth birthday and ensured himself a living and modest financial success. He reluctantly abandoned it, however, to study art in Tokyo. For the time being he was content with studying illustrations in western newspapers and collecting animations.
While visiting Tokyo in 1932, he boldly decided to surrender himself to the big city life. He first worked as a sign painter and then later from 1944 until 1954 as an employee of the Asahi Newspaper Company. The job however was a secondary matter. More importantly, Saito became a close contact to Shiko Munakata through the job. He then decided to become familiar in the technique of woodcutting, and was not the least impressed by the color wood block prints of the western-oriented painter Yasui Sotaro (1888-1955).
Saito continued to paint with oil and taught himself the technqiues of wood block printing. In 1937 he presented both types of work for the first time in the famous Kokugakai Exhibition and was highly motivated. When he met Ono Tadashige at the Ginza Exhibition in 1939, he became a member of his artists group, which preceded the outside group Sosaku Hanga. There he discovered the possibilities of color woodcuts with multiple printing plates and his distinctive personal style began to take form.
The acquaintance with mentor Koshiro Onchi soon opened doors to famous galleries, where most notably American purchasers took an interest in Saito’s work. Kiyoshi Saito emerged as Japan’s most productive woodblock print artist, whose editions soon found worldwide markets. Sosaku Hanga artists were, however, first dismissed in the Japanese art world and their works were considered concessions to American tastes.
This abruptly changed however in 1951 at the first Sao Paulo Art Biennial, when a panel of judges gave prizes not to distinguished artists for oil paintings and sculptures but rather to two Hanga artists: for the etchings of Tetsuro Komai as well as to Kiyoshi Saito for a wood block print. The Japanese art world was shocked.
Saito’s work was henceforth displayed in important exhibitions and purchased for renowned collections. Saito was also often sought after as an illustrator for newspapers or as a commercial graphic designer. This new recognition and increased demand for his work brought Saito wealth and enabled him and his family to purchase their own home in 1970 in Kamakura on the outskirts of Tokyo, and another in 1987 in his homeland Fukushima.
The works of Kiyoshi Saito were influenced by the cultural legacies of northern Japan and also sometimes by its scarce landscape. A certain folksy-archaic roughness and a simultaneous expressionist abstraction give them a distinctive sense of contemporary printing. Saito also stayed true to the traditional Japanese techniques. He connected them, however, to modern two dimensional geometric principles.
Saito’s work captures people with its compositional clarity and artistic simplicity. The bold abstraction and spontaneous design give his work a special quality. And it makes an extremely fresh and lively impression on those who are accustomed to showing a stamp/seal and a signature with the images – usually small tabloids. Motifs include everything from landscapes, portraits, and still lifes to animals and plants of all sorts.
Cincinnati Art Museum
Greater Victoria Museum
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Achenbach Foundation for the Graphic Arts
Denver Art Museum
New York Public Library
Art Institute of Chicago
Gallery of New South Wales
Tikotin Museum of Japanese Art
Fukushima Prefectural Museum of Art
Kanagawa Prefectural Museum of Art