Hiroshi Yoshida (1876-1950)

Hiroshi Yoshida (1876-1950) (his name is usually given in Western order, with the family name last) was one of the leading print designers of the shin hanga school of prints, specializing in landscape prints which were produced by a Japanese process, but which in form (if not spirit) are significantly Westernized. One leading writer on Japanese prints (Hugo Munsterberg) described them, not un-aptly, as "Western-style watercolors translated into a different medium".

However, he remains an important shin hanga artist, both because of the excellence of his work, and also because of his idiosyncratic production style, in which he not only drew the art (as was typical of the classic Japanese woodblock print), but was personally involved in producing the prints, in some cases going so far as to carve blocks himself. In this personal involvement in all stages of production he formed a link between the world of shin hanga and sosaku hanga.

He was the son of Euda Tsukane, a former samurai who was an elementary school principal. His art teacher, Yoshida Kasaburo, discovered his talent for art and adopted him. He was sent to study under Yoshida's old teacher in Kyoto; while there, he met Miyake Katsumi, a pioneer in watercolour painting in Japan. As a result, at the age of eighteen he moved to Tokyo and commenced study with the Western-style painter Koyama Shotaro, where he studied pencil drawing, not the classical Japanese brush drawing.

Inspired by two painters who had introduced Impressionism to Japan, and been the first to travel abroad on Ministry of Education scholarships for overseas study, Yoshida and a friend, Nakagawa Hachiro, decided to travel to the United States, financing their trip by the sale of paintings which they took with them, as well as menial work. Through a connection with Charles L. Freer, who had previously bought one of Yoshida's watercolours, they managed to arrange a show of their work at the Detroit art Gallery, which was followed by others in Boston and Washington. The large crowds earned the two enough money to extend their tour to Europe.

Although many Japanese artists at this point were simply emulating Western art, and Yoshida left Japan seeking Western influences, he later explained that his travels in the West made him confident that his personal idiosyncratic style, rooted in his Japanese art teaching, was sound, and encouraged him to continue with it. On his return to Japan, he continued with his work in watercolours and also in oils, becoming widely known in Japan as one of the most talented artists in the Western-influenced style.

In 1920, after almost twenty years as one of the leading Western-style artists in Japan, Yoshida met the woodblock print publisher Shozaburo Watanabe, the founder of the shin hanga movement, through a Japanese friend who had helped him in Boston during his first trip to the U.S. Watanabe wished to publish prints by Western-style artists, but none appeared to be interested until Watanabe made contact with Yoshida. Yoshida produced a number of prints with Watanabe, starting in 1920.

However, on another visit to the U.S. in 1923, Yoshida learned that ukiyo-e were highly thought of in the West. However, ukiyo-e of low quality were flooding the market, and the base of skilled personnel for prints was rapidly diminishing in Japan. He became interested in becoming more involved with the production of woodblock prints of his work, and marrying the classic woodblock print with his modern art. At the somewhat advanced age of forty-seven, Yoshida decided to switch artistic fields, and thereafter devoted himself principally to the uniquely Japanese indigenous art of woodblock printmaking.

His first two major series of prints produced on his own, in 1925, had as themes places and things he had seen on his trips to the U.S. and Europe. He continued to feature foreign scenes and sights, garnered on trips through India, Southeast Asia, China and Korea, in later years, although starting in 1926 he also produced many views of classic Japanese scenery and sights.

Although he employed skilled carvers and printers to produce prints, Yoshida wanted to be at least as skilled as them in all their specialties, and he therefore extensively studied woodblock carving and printing, and actually personally carved the blocks for fifteen of his prints. He also personally supervised the printing, and only passed a print after checking the color, registration, etc. He also tried technical innovations, such as zinc plates used for fine detail in a number of his prints.

Another of his innovations was the production of different version of images from the same set of blocks, commencing with a set three different versions of the print "Sailing Boats", produced by Watanabe in 1921. Yoshida's next attempt created no less than six different views of his print "Sailing Boats" in 1926 (the blocks for the older one having been destroyed in the Great Tokyo Fire of 1923). Using the same blocks, but with different inks, he produced images depicting "Morning", "Forenoon", "Afternoon", "Mist", "Evening" and "Night", and these drew much public attention when entered in a contemporary art exhibition.

As previously mentioned, he was connected to the world of sosaku hanga, and as it developed in the 1920's and 1930's, although he admired their independence and creativity, he felt their carving and printing techniques were lacking. He thus continued on his own path, midway between the worlds of sosaku hanga and shin hanga.

Throughout the 1920's and 1930's, he continued to produce series of magnificent works whose quality showed no signs of decline. He produced his last group of woodblock images in 1941; although he produced a single print in 1946, perhaps the Second World War in some way damaged his ability to create art. His last planned work was a series entitled 'One Hundred Views of the World', but alas he died in 1950 before it could be completed.

In his respect and celebration of nature, as well as in his veneration of an indigenous Japanese art form, Yoshida was quintessentially Japanese, perhaps even more so as a result of his travels overseas. Yet he was also not insular, with the rest of the world showing in both his style as well as his subjects.

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