Artist's work brings copper plate color prints to life

An impression of stillness amid the wonder of color is a beautiful thing to behold.

Musee Hamaguchi Yozo: Yamasa Collection exhibits some of the works of copper plate printing artist Yozo Hamaguchi, famous around the world as a pioneer of a printing technique known as color mezzotint.

Hamaguchi, who died in 2000 at age 91, produced unique works that capture creatures and objects by depicting them in delicate colors against a background of black.

Different than etching, in which lines are cut into a copper plate and then corroded with the application of an acid, Hamaguchi directly engraved a copper plate treated with mezzotint.

The museum, which regularly displays about 50 works by Hamaguchi, including some using other printing techniques, is holding until next Thursday a special exhibition titled “Wonders of color mezzotint — exploring the secrets of colors in the works of Yozo Hamaguchi.”

“Twenty-Two Cherries” is widely considered one of the masterpieces of the exhibition.

Hamaguchi made three versions of the piece, which depicts cherries printed in red, yellow and purple. In each of the versions, the brightly colored cherries appear to float in the dark, accented by dim light and subtle shadows.

Ei Okuno, curator of the museum, said that the charm of Hamaguchi’s works lies in the harmony of black in the background with other colors in such objects as watermelons, ladybirds and butterflies.

“We find light and darkness in the black, which is deep and delicate like velvet,” Okuno asserted. “The vivid and profound colors of red or yellow are highlighted by the black.”

The beautiful transition of colors is another feature of Hamaguchi’s works, which are even evident in the thin stems of each cherry, Okuno said.

Such shade and the contrast in tones are caused by innumerable burrs carved on a copper plate by a tool with a toothed blade.

As several burrs are carved in a single square millimeter, it takes months for the artist to complete a small plate, Okuno explained.

To complete one work, Hamaguchi made four different plates for the four different colors — black, red, blue and yellow — to create a variety of colors with different tones when the four were combined.

“It was painstaking work for Hamaguchi to make as many as four plates of the different colors,” Okuno said. “But I imagine he discovered the possibilities of an art form that can produce colors with limitless possibilities.”

Visitors to the exhibition can see Hamaguchi’s copper plates and try their hand at engraving.

Hamaguchi was born in 1909, the son of a former president of Yamasa Corp., a major soy sauce manufacturer.

After studying at the Tokyo School of Art, the predecessor of the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, he went to France and learned how to use oil and water paints as well as copper printing techniques.

Hamaguchi returned to Japan during World War II, and then made his way back to Paris in 1953.

He developed color mezzotint around 1955.

The technique, originally monochrome, was born in the 17th century in Europe, according to the museum.

The use of monochrome mezzotint images became obsolete with the advent of photography.

Hamaguchi turned his attention to the technique and developed it into a form of artistic expression, according to Okuno.

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