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Ishii Hakutei (1882-1958)


Biographical Data

Biography

Ishii Hakutei 石井柏亭 (1882-1958)
Sources: British Museum website http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/search_the_collection_database/term_details.aspx; Guide to Modern Japanese Woodblock Prints: 1900-1975, Helen Merritt, University of Hawaii Press, 1992, p. 43 and as footnoted.

Ishii Hakutei (undated photo)
Ishii Hakutei, painter and print artist, was one of the fathers of the sosaku hanga (creative print) movement.  Born in Tokyo in 1882 with the given name Mankichi, he was the son of the traditional-style painter and lithographer Ishii Teiko (1848-97), with whom he studied early in his life.  After his father's death, Hakutei became interested in Western-style art and soon became very competent in both oils and watercolor, specializing in Japanese landscape. He studied under Asai Chū (1856-1907), a leading Western-style (yoga) painter and a founding member of the Meiji Bijutsukai (Meiji Fine Arts Society), and in 1904 won entry to the Tokyo School of Fine Arts, where he studied with Kuroda Seiki (1886-1924) and Fujishima Takeji (1867-1943) both prominent Western-style painters.

Ishii was an activist in groups of Western-style artists and was the editor of the art and literary magazine Myojo (Morning Star) and a co-founder of the magazine Heitan (1905-6).  In July 1904, Ishii published Yamamoto Kanae's (1882-1946) print Fisherman (shown below). Fisherman was called a "revolutionary step" by Ishii because Kanae had personally done all of the work in producing a print from his own design, as opposed to the long-established practice in which the functions of artists were presumed to be distinct from those of artisans, i.e. the artist did the design and relied upon artisan carvers and printers, generally working for a publisher, to produce the final print.

While Fisherman was not the first print done entirely by an artist, it was the first using "the tradition-bound woodblock that had always been used exclusively as a means of reproduction."2  "As Hakutei saw the situation, Japanese woodblock reproduction was inevitably declining in the face of Western printing technology.  In sosaku hanga (whereby the artist created the design, carved the woodblock and did the printing), however, artists could expand the vitality of woodblock in new directions and continue to give the 'taste of Japanese hanga' to the world."3

From 1907 to 1910 Hakutei co-founded and was chief editor of the magazine Hosun, where many of his paintings were published in reproduction and where his ideas on the development of Japanese art were put forward.  He went to Europe in 1910. On his return in 1912 he continued his prints series Twelve Views of Tokyo (see below), begun in 1910. Ishii wrote extensively on the European art scene and his experiences, reporting on the Fauve, Futurist, and Cubist exhibits he viewed overseas, as well as on Kandinsky and the Blauer Reiter group.4

In 1915, Hakutei contributed a number of portraits of kabuki actors to Shin Nigao Magazine whose purpose was to advertise the Kabuki theater and renew interest in actor prints.  (See prints IHL Cat. #243 and #256.)

The fact that Hakutei did not participate in the founding of the Japanese Creative Print Association in 1918 suggests his interest had returned firmly to painting, where it remained. He went again to Europe in 1923-25. During his life he founded or joined many societies for the advancement of Western-style art, and wrote much on European and Japanese artists and aesthetics. Today, he is highly regarded in Japan as an oil-painter and watercolorist.  Ishii was a communicator, encourager and prolific author, and his influence on printmaking, like that of Yamamoto Kanae, was out of proportion to the small body of prints he produced early in his career.

The Print Series "Twelve Views of Tokyo"

In 1910, Hakutei began designing a series of prints called Twelve Views of Tokyo (Tokyo junikei), which have become the woodblock prints he is best known for, even though they drew little interest when first published.  Their lack of sales resulted in only nine of the twelve planned designs being created.

Each print featured a traditionally dressed woman in front of a picture of a modern Tokyo scene with a cartouche containing the prints title, in a style popular in later ukiyo-e prints. Hakutei friend, Igami Bonkotsu, carved the blocks and they were printed by Nishimura Kumakichi. Two prints, Yoshicho (pictured below) and Yanagibashi, were completed in 1910, before his sojourn to Paris, and the last seven prints were made after his return to Japan in 1914. 

Yoshicho, 1910
from Twelve Views of Tokyo

1 Modern Japanese Woodblock Prints - The Early Years, Helen Merritt, University of Hawaii Press, 1998, p. 112
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.
4 In Pursuit of Universalism: Yorozu Tetsugoro and Japanese Modern Art, Alicia Volk, University of California Press, 2009, p. 35.