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Kawanishi Hide (1894-1965)


Biographical Data

Biography


Kawanishi Hide 川西英 (1894-1965)

I have never had a teacher of painting. I am absolutely self-educated and have painted what are not paintings. Having walked and found my own path, I am just what you may call a dilettante. I may complain about losing my youth, but there are things that I shall never lose such as innocent mind and thrills, creativity, originality, and a fresh sense of popularity and clarity. To become plain is the last thing I want to be." - the artist, 19651


 Photo of the artist
c. 1940.
Kawanishi Hide was born in the port city of Kobe, where he lived all his life. Inspired by Yamamoto Kanae's (1882-1946) creative prints (sosaku hanga), which Kanae carved and printed himself, he taught himself to carve and print while still in high school. 

“I first got excited about woodcuts when I saw Kanae Yamamoto’s print A Small Bay in Brittany in the window of an art shop in Osaka.  I’d seen ukiyo-e, of course, but they didn’t interest me.  Yamamoto’s print did, and I started to make a few prints along with my oils.”2 (Along with Yamamoto the artist also sites Lautrec, Van Gogh, Onchi and Gaugin as having direct influence on his work.)3

Graduating from Kobe business school in 1915, Kawanishi showed no interest in his family’s shipping business.  To his father’s chagrin, he chose to resurrect the family’s hereditary postal job knowing that it would allow him time to create prints. 

Despite his isolation from the center of the sosaku hanga movement in Tokyo, Kawanishi was a core member of the movement. He first exhibited prints with the Nihon Sosaku-Kiyokai (Creative Print Association) in 1923, which he joined in 1932, and starting in 1931, he exhibited with Kokugakai (National Painting Association)
which he joined in 1935.  Kawanishi contributed to several creative print magazines, to the series One Hundred New Views of Japan (Shin Nihon hyakkei), to the first three collections of the Ichimoku-kai (Onchi Koshiro’s First Thursday Society) and to the 1946 post-war portfolios Nihon Minzoku Zufu and Nihon Jozoku-sen.

Kobe Port, 1940
from the series Shin Nihon hyakkei
Kawanishi’s work is characterized by use of primary colors and the absence of black outlines defining the shapes. In fact, Kawanishi purposely softened the edges of his forms by using a round chisel rather than a knife to carve the contours.  He used poster colors, which he never mixed, and treated black as “just another color.”4 

In commenting on his small color pallet Kawanishi said, “Perhaps because my ancestral home is so dark and gloomy, I like to use primary colors in simple contrasting effects.”5  While Kawanishi may have seen Kobe as dark and gloomy, he loved living in this port town whose setting provided material and inspiration for many of his prints.

“When I was a boy I used to go to a nearby bar for sailors and watch them having a good time.  I’ve always liked the free and easy atmosphere of a port.”6

Dance Hall, 1935

Another popular subject of Kawanishi’s prints is the circus.  The artist tells the story of asking the manager of a visiting German circus for one of their advertising posters and being given an entire set of posters.7 It's easy to imagine these posters displaying the flat simplified shapes of Art Deco posters of the period, a style that Kawanishi adopted, as shown below.

 
Four White Circus Horses with Trainer, 1933
 
American Circus, 1953


In creating his prints, Kawanishi used solid blocks of katsura or ho, and printed on thick hodomura paper, thoroughly moistened so that the colors seep through to the back.8

Kawanishi was a prolific artist, creating some 1,000 designs during his lifetime and producing and contributing to a number of printed albums and books including the book Nihon no hana (Flowers of Japan) in which the print Rose in this collection originally appeared.

Nihon no hana

Kawanishi was awarded the Hyogo Prefecture Culture Prize in 1949 and Kobe Shinbun Peace Prize9 in 1962.  His work is contained in many major museum collections including those of the the British Museum; Carnegie Museum of Art; Honolulu Academy of Arts; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto.

His third son Kawanishi Yuzaburo 川西祐三郎 (b.1923) works much in his father's style but with more international subjects.

1
Modern Japanese Woodblock Prints: An Art Reborn, by Oliver Statler, Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1956, p. 115.
2
Guide to Modern Japanese Woodblock Prints: 1900-1975, Helen Merritt, University of Hawaii Press, 1992, p. 61. 
3
Modern Japanese Prints: An Art Reborn, Oliver Statler, Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1956, p. 118.
4 Images of a Changing World: Japanese Prints of the Twentieth Century, Donald Jenkins, Portland Art Museum, 1983, p. 88.

5 Modern Japanese Woodblock Prints - The Early Years, Helen Merritt, University of Hawaii Press, 1998, p. 230.
6 Statler, p. 116.
7 Ibid.
8 Ibid. p. 118.
9 The Kobe Shimbun, a daily newspaper in Kobe, Japan, established the Peace Award in 1947 to commemorate the promulgation of the Peace Constitution of Japan.