KAWASE HASUI: The Complete Woodblock Prints, by Kendall H. Brown, with essays by Amy Reigle Newland and Shoichiro Watanabe. Amsterdam: Hotei Publishing, two volumes, 550 pp., 700 color illus., 2002, $265.00 (cloth).

Kawase Hasui (1883-1957), sometimes deemed “the foremost 20th-century Japanese landscape print artist,” was a member of that loose association called the shin-hanga school, one purpose of which was to revitalize the classic ukiyo-e tradition in Japanese printmaking.

Active and widely published, Hasui was nonetheless not awarded a deserved critical regard until recently. Though he was designated a Living National Treasure in 1957, the year of his death, it was only in 1979 that the first monograph on his work appeared.

There were reasons for this neglect. One was that he was, as a critic once wrote, “aesthetically antiquated.” Though this might seem well within the aims of those revitalizing the ukiyo-e tradition, it was nevertheless held against Hasui.

Indeed, understood through the assumption of modernist aesthetics with its famous dismissal of emotion in favor of intellect, most shin-hanga could seem trite and sentimental. One of the first foreign writings on modern woodblock prints, that of Oliver Statler, dismissed the whole school and Hasui himself as “merely reproductive art,” despite its “charm.”

Charm was, of course, not a favored quality among modernist aestheticians. It suggested superficiality, facade-like feelings, grace, allure and other unpopular categories. To be sure Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Hiroshige had claims to charm as well, but that was back then, not in the progressive and vibrant 20th century.

Now that we see where all the progressive vibrance has gotten us, in art as in all else, there is more critical willingness to allow for emotional responses formerly disapproved of. If modernism is all clean lines and forthright ideas, then postmodernism, where we at present find ourselves, has no lines at all and, possibly, few ideas.

“Retro” is now a contemporary style and we can, looking at a Hasui’s “Hut in the Dark,” a single window of bright yellow, agree with Junichiro Tanizaki when he wrote (in an entirely different context): “The light of a bulb under a shade shining dimly from behind the white paper shoji of a thatch-roofed farmhouse can seem positively elegant.”

More, we can sense the tranquillity of these scenes. We can see past the prettiness of the autumn foliage or amassed cherry blossoms to what has been called the “transcendental calm,” of the mature Hasui print.

Kendall Brown, in his elegant introduction to the man and the work, lists some of the qualities that create this impression: Nature is the accepted source of inspiration; ephemerality is believed to be the very definition of atmosphere; these create the mood, the feeling of tranquillity, of contemplation; and this commemoration of a Japanese past is an essential attribute of Japaneseness. Though the last item is somewhat dicey — national character is no longer profitably believed.

This effect — a whole atmosphere on paper — is achieved through the use of sympathetic saturated colors, stable and orderly compositions, absorbent paper that dampens rich colors and diffuses sharp lines, and often a distancing grid of rain or snow — the creation of which Hasui was a master. The result is an ambience.

In the 1926 “Clearing After a Snowfall in Asakusa,” there is a crispness, a boldness of line against so much white, a new definition in the cold air.

The 1930 “Rainy Morning in Asakusa” has a freshness, a washed newness, as though the day is starting all over again. This is not something that occurs only in the critical mind. It is there on the paper.

Hasui’s view itself is modern. There is the all-steel Shinnohashi bridge, the electric poles and telephone wire of Kiba, an automobile going through the Shiba Great Gate. Alone among the shin-hanga artists, Hasui included the new. But he did so only because he could, as it were, antiquate it. His automobile becomes one with the rickshaws or palanquins of earlier prints.

Evanescence has turned timeless. And we are now the audience to whom Hasui directly speaks. Perhaps that it why this beautifully designed, splendidly printed and marvelously organized catalogue raisonne is now possible. Fifty years ago you could have picked up one of the prints for $5; now this catalog alone costs $265. And is well worth the money — a whole world recaptured in two volumes.

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