When an important date comes around — like a centenary — and an artist has to be commemorated and celebrated, the problem museums and galleries often have is how to get hold of artworks that best represent him.
The Museum of Modern Art Kamakura, for example, has chosen to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kiyoshi Saito, an artist renowned for his hanga (woodblock prints), with an exhibition that is dominated by his impressive but lesser-known monochrome paintings. The reason for such a choice is that what an artist sells and what he keeps are often two different things, and what he keeps often finds its way ultimately into public collections.
This seems to have been the case with the works at this exhibition. According to the exhibition’s curator Hiraku Kore-eda, most of the works selected were donated by Saito to the Museum of Modern Art Kamakura and the Mie Prefectural Art Museum.
“In 1985, we organized an exhibition of his monochrome paintings that toured to Mie Prefectural Art Museum,” Kore-eda says. “At that time Mr. Saito presented us and also Mie Prefectural Art Museum with several of his monochrome paintings. The nucleus of the exhibition is these works.”
Because the bulk of the exhibition is made up of the famous print artists’ non-print works, its main interest lies in establishing connections or contrasts between the monochrome paintings and his prints, several of which are also included. (Making up the rest of the exhibition are a few print works by contemporaries such as Tadashige Ono, Yasunori Taninaka and Toshiro Maeda.)
Saito, who started out as an oil painter, later became part of the sosaku hanga (creative prints) movement, which stressed the sole role of the creator in contrast to the collaborative ethos of traditional ukiyo-e printmaking. The artist became fully in charge of drawing, carving and printing his designs onto paper. With the rise of Western notions of individual creativity in the post-World War II era, the movement came to dominate Japanese printmaking and received an enormous boost in 1951 when Saito and Tetsuro Komai, another sosaku hanga artist, won prizes at the inaugural Sao Paulo Biennial.
With the sosaku hanga emphasis on the artist performing all the stages of printmaking, you might think that Saito’s monochrome paintings were part of a process ultimately aimed at creating prints. While some of his monochrome paintings, most noticeably “Lingering Snow” (1983), with its blocks of white and gray, suggest he was wielding his brush with a block of wood and a chisel in mind, others are clearly unrelated. The soft, indistinct tones of “Kyonbokun” (1970), a painting of the royal palace in Seoul, for example, would be a nightmare to re-create on wood.
“I think that for him painting and woodblocks were essentially different forms of expression,” Kore-eda says.
While the texture of Saito’s prints comes from the grain of the wood and random factors in the printing, his creative focus is on the composition of clearly defined visual elements. Such a focus, rather than nostalgia for his home region, motivated him to create his famous “Winter in Aizu” series of prints in 1938. He often returned to the theme of snowy rural Japan in later works due to composition — the usefulness of snow is demonstrated in “Snow in Aizu” (1970), where it helps define objects and creates a sense of space and isolation that translates well to wood, and ultimately to paper.
“He was very interested in the variety of forms of snowy landscapes,” Kore-eda comments. “His ‘Aizu’ works have a quality of nostalgia, but he said that they are not only about nostalgia, that the composition is more important.”
By contrast, in his monochrome paintings the emphasis seems to be on the subtle and varied tones that can be achieved with sumi ink, painted in many cases on rough traditional Japanese washi paper.
“The paper he used was made in Fukui Prefecture where he was born,” Kore-eda says. “He said the paper was very rough and textured because he wanted to make thick ink layers. He loved the great variety of tone of Chinese ink.”
The tones of sumi ink may sometimes look dull and indistinguishable to a generation raised within the glare of neon, but to those from areas or eras that use illumination more sparingly, the somber tones of Saito’s works are rich and evocative.
Although the exhibition commemorates this great print artist by, ironically, not focusing on his prints, the monochrome paintings on display present another side of Saito’s creativity, which acts as another point from which we can triangulate something of the essence of this subtle and skillful artist.