Shin-hanga was a twentieth-century movement of Japanese woodblock prints, and translates literally as ‘new prints’. The movement can be seen as a revival of the earlier ukiyo-e movement, which declined in popularity following the deaths of its most significant artists; contemporary tastes also began to reject the genre, as it was seen to represent an obsolete era.
The subject matter of ukiyo-e was highly influenced by imperialism and the military; shin-hanga took the traditional methods and styles of the earlier movement and combined it with western influence.
The driving force behind the scenes was not an artist, but a publisher called Watanabe Shozaburo (1885-1962). Shozaburo was responsible for publishing all of the shin-hanga prints, the majority of which were sent to the USA and Europe where Japanese art played a key role in defining artistic trends.
Shin-hanga is significant because it created a fusion of Western art and Japanese values, including the traditional method of woodblock printing. Common subjects of shin-hanga prints included birds, animals, and flowers, actors, and beautiful women, but the movement is most synonymous with landscapes.
What is woodblock printing and how does it work?
- Japanese woodblock printing is a tradition that has been practiced by artists in Japan since the seventeenth century
- The process begins by designing a scene or an image, and transferring it onto a block of wood
- The artist then uses a range of knives and sharp tools to cut the design into the wood – this process can be extremely detailed, but the most effective prints often focus on minimal detail and flat plains of colour
- The image is carved so that the details are raised, and the background is lowered
- Sumi ink is then applied evenly to the block. Paper is laid over the block, and then rubbed onto the ink using a tool called a baren
- Layers of colour are added by carving new blocks, which are then printed over the top to create layers of colour. Complex colour prints often used up to 20 individually carved blocks
Yoshida is regarded as one of the greatest artists of the shin-hanga style, and is noted for his excellent landscape prints. Born in 1876, he studied art in Kyoto where he was trained in the Western oil painting tradition. Following a solo exhibition in Detroit in 1899, Yoshida returned to Japan to work with Watanabe Shozaburo, and gained international recognition. Interestingly, the artist often reused wood blocks with different colours of ink to create different moods and atmospheres.
Koson was a master of kachō-è, a genre of shin-hanga that specialised in images of nature with a particular focus on animals and flowers. Koson started working with Shozaburo from 1926, and his prints became very desirable in the USA. throughout his life, he exhibited all over the world, including the USA, The Netherlands, the UK, Canada, and New Zealand.
Shin-hanga is a demonstration of modernising Japanese art; most of the artists involved attended art school and trained in painting, and lacked the workshop training in block printing of earlier artists. Their awareness of western influences in subject and style, particularly French Impressionism, combined with traditional Japanese imagery and symbolism created a modern fusion of cultures and movements.
The twentieth century was a radical new era in Japan, and was defined by industrial modernisation, air travel, urbanisation, and popular media: these are all defining influences on Shin-hanga.