By the early 1900s, Japan’s rich tradition of woodblock printing was on its deathbed. The cornerstone of commercial publishing for hundreds of years, it had also spawned the floruit of ukiyo-e, one of the glories of old Edo merchant culture.

As Japan opened to the West and publishers gained access to foreign advanced technology, however, the print industry underwent a massive revolution. Suddenly, images could be produced quickly, cheaply and in much larger quantities. By comparison, woodcutting was a laborious technique that, in the case of ukiyo-e prints, could require the carving of a dozen blocks before a single image could be completed. It was a slow and cumbersome process, one that was utterly unsuited to a society rushing headlong into modernity.

Yet, just as woodblock printing seemed destined for the dustheap, two new artistic trends arose from the mid aughts of the new century to give the art form renewed purpose.

The first, which emerged in 1904, was the “creative print” movement, known as sōsaku-hanga, which emphasized personal experimentation. This generally found favor with Western-trained artists who looked to Paris for inspiration and who insisted upon retaining control over all aspects of a print’s creation — from the original design and carving of the blocks to the choice of paper and the final impression.

The second, usually dated to 1915, was the “new print” movement, or shin-hanga, whose adherents worked much like the old ukiyo-e masters. Artists of this persuasion usually limited their contribution to a design, albeit one that was often based on an original painting of their own, which was then passed on to a publisher for approval. If the latter was satisfied, he would hire a craftsman to carve the blocks and then hand these over to a printer who brought the final image to life. In other words, it was a highly collaborative process. It was also a small affair: between 1915 and 1940 there were only around 35 artists working in the genre.

One of these was Ohara Koson (1877-1945). He was neither the most successful nor the best-known — Hasui Kawase (1883-1957), Hiroshi Yoshida (1876-1950) and Shinsui Ito (1898-1972) are usually considered the movement’s standard-bearers — but he left a large body of work that has only come to be fully appreciated in the past 20 years.

Illustrating this critical and popular revival, Koson is now the subject of a retrospective at the Ota Memorial Museum of Art, the first exhibition in Tokyo to cover his entire career as a print designer. The second installment of the show can be viewed until March 24.

Scholars believe that Koson created up to 500 different prints, the majority in a single but highly productive decade, between 1926 and 1935. This flurry of activity notwithstanding, we know very little about his life. This is surprising, since dozens of specialized arts journals were in circulation during these years, to say nothing of a gaggle of print media.

Why is there so little about Koson on the public record? In a recent interview with the Japan Times, Kenji Hinohara, chief curator at the Ota Memorial Museum of Art, suggested an explanation: There has been comparatively little academic research on Koson.

“It is possible we will learn more in the future,” he opines.

For now, only the basic contours of Koson’s life have been established with some clarity. He was born in Ishikawa Prefecture, on the west coast of Japan, and he trained at a local technical school. He then apprenticed with Suzuki Kason, a specialist of kachōga (flowers-and-birds painting), from whom he inherited much of his aesthetics and sensibility — Koson showed little interest for the popular subject of beautiful women in various states of deshabille.

In the mid to late 1890s, he moved to Tokyo, where Suzuki helped him gain entry into the capital’s arts circles. Perhaps under the influence of the art historian Ernest Fenollosa (1853-1908), who championed the importance of traditional Japanese arts, Koson dabbled in woodblock printing. Eventually, however, he chose to focus on nihonga, a late 19th-century painting genre that upheld Japanese styles and techniques, often blending them with Western influences in a highly eclectic manner.

Alas, Koson never quite made it as a painter. “He was not highly esteemed as a nihonga artist,” says Hinohara, which might also explain why so few of his paintings have survived.

In 1926, apparently realizing he was going nowhere, or perhaps just needing to secure a stable income, Koson, then just shy of 50, returned to prints. This time, he stuck to it.

It was a wise decision. Koson was not very popular in Japan but he developed a keen foreign clientele, particularly in the United States. He was part of a small group of shin-hanga artists whose work was broadly exhibited overseas and whose subject matter appealed to foreigners’ tastes and curiosity for an exotic Far East. His prints were also affordable and thus easily collectable.

Woodblock printing never recovered the status it held in its heyday in the first half of the 19th century, when Utagawa Hiroshige and Utagawa Kuniyoshi were pushing its limits to heroic effect. But as a medium for artistic expression, it did not disappear, despite frequent rumors of its imminent demise. Koson and his ilk made sure of that.

For more information on the “Ohara Koson exhibition, visit www.ukiyoe-ota-muse.jp.

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