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Yasui Sōtarō (1888–1955)

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Yasui Sōtarō 安井 曾太郎  (May 17, 1888 – December 14, 1955)

Yasui Sōtarō was one of Japan’s most respected Western-style (yōga) painters from the 1930s through his death in 1955.  Born in Kyoto to a merchant family, he studied in Paris from 1907 until 1914 at a time when at least a dozen Japanese painters had made pilgrimage there to learn the latest Western techniques and to live amongst the great modern works and European artists of the time.  Upon Yasui’s return to Japan in 1914 he found himself famous for the work he created while in France, but faced with a dilemma of reconciling what he learned and the work he created in France with the Japanese physical environment, tradition and his own temperament.  Struggling with this reconciliation for many years there emerged in 1929 what came to be known as the “Yasui style,” which combined clear lines with rich colors.   While also creating landscapes and still-lifes, he is primarily known for his portraits.  Throughout his career Yasui was active in various progressive artist organizations and as a teacher, particularly during the latter part of his career when he taught at the Tokyo School of Fine Arts.  In 1952 he was awarded the Order of Cultural Merit.

Biography

           1933 photo
Yasui was born into a Kyoto merchant family that wholesaled cotton-goods.  While his parents intended to have their son join the family business, sending him to Kyoto City Commercial School, Yasui’s desire to be an artist drove him to switch to Shōgo-in Institute of Western Art (Shōga-in Yōga Kenkyū-jo) at the age of 16, and later to the Kansai Academy of Art (Kansai Bijutsu-in), where he was taught by Asai Chū (1856-1907) and Kanokogi Takeshirō (1874-1941), leading Western-style artists of the time.   In recalling Yasui’s time at the Kansai Academy of art fellow painter Ogawa Chikami recollects: “Yasui had the simplicity and sturdiness of the cotton goods his father sold, and his pictures were dark and tastefully severe…. Here was the tall Yasui, with his crew-cut hair, walking around shamelessly in the main streets of Kyoto in khaki work clothes splattered with paint – a sight that was indeed unusual in the Kyoto of those days.”1

In a period when Post-Impressionism was exerting the most influence on young Japanese artists studying in the Western-style, the dream of many of these artists was to study in Paris2 and in 1907, at the age of 19, following the death of his teacher Asai, Yasui traveled to France where he was to live for seven years, primarily in Paris.  “During that period, he received a renewed grounding 

in painting through his art school studies and absorbed even more from being exposed to the art of his time on its home ground, in the museums and galleries of Paris. He was deeply impressed by Pissarro, Renoir, and especially Cézanne.”3

Like many students of Asai Chū, Yasui initially studied with the historical painter Jean-Paul Laurens (1838 – 1921) at the Académie Julian, founded in 1868.  In 1907, inspired by the posthumous Cézanne retrospective at the Salon d'Automne, he left the academy to develop a more personal style and as he later wrote, “to see nature through the Master’s eyes.”4

While at the Académie, Yasui was considered a particularly brilliant student and his sketches and paintings regularly took prizes at their shows.  As with other young painters, Yasui took up pleine air painting while at the Académie and began trips to the countryside to paint, eventually abandoning academic training in order to develop a more individual style. 

In 1914, at the outbreak of WWI, Yasui along with other, but not all, Japanese painters returned to Japan.  Upon his return, he became active in the Nika-kai5 (formed in opposition to the official Bunten exhibition) and in the 1915 Nika Exhibition his European work attracted enormous attention from both artists and the general public, demonstrating “just how accomplished the new generation of Japanese painters could become when freed from the earlier academic training still prevalent in Japanese teaching circles.”6

Following this initial success, while Yasuji continued to produce work, he wrestled with trying to “accommodate what he had learned in France to his own temperament and to his new environment.  The quality of light, he came to realize, was sufficiently different in Japan from the fabled luminosity of France that it was necessary to create new techniques to render it.  Further, some of the painting materials available in Japan did not produce the same effects as those the painter had used in France.  In Yasui’s view, it was not until 1929 that he found himself again.”7

 
Portrait of a Woman, 1930 , oil on canvas
(The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto)
Along with another rendering of the same model created the previous year, this masterpiece marked the beginning of the famed “Yasui style” of the 1930s.
For Yasui, finding himself involved his transition from landscape, still lifes, and genre painting to portraiture where his greatest talent lay.  Beginning in 1929 with his showing of several portraits of a young woman clad in kimono (see Portrait of a Woman, 1930 left), critics began speaking of a “Yasui style,” described as a style “in which clear lines and rich, mellow colors are combined.”8  His transition to portraiture was to secure Yasui an important position in the Tokyo art world.

The 1930s saw a maturing of Yasui’s style which synthesized the “Western-style naturalistic representation that he had perfected in France, the influences of modernist art, especially Cézanne, and the heritage of East Asian art, particularly the two-dimensional treatment of space and arbitrary light source.”

Through the 1930s and up until his death, Yasui “created work after work that his public felt represented a truly contemporary and authentically Japanese vision.  His color were dynamic, and his ability to portray psychological elements of his portrait sitters was highly developed.  [H]is growing ability to simplify forms and take delight in flat and abstract shapes represented for many a resurgence of a truly Japanese quality in his art.  Some critics traced these accomplishments, as they did those of Umehara10, to their Kyoto background.”11



 
A 1934 photo of Yasui painting the portrait of Mr. Tamamushi Ichiroichi, principal of Daini Kotogakko, a high school under the prewar education system. On the occasion of his retirement, the school asked Yasui to paint a portrait. The full-length portrait produced then was submitted to the Nikaten and extolled as “the greatest portrait on record.” The finished painting Portrait of Mr. Tamamushi, 1934, in the collection of the Tōhoku University Archives, is shown on the right.

In 1935 he was made a member of the Imperial Art Academy, whereupon he left the Nika-kai.  In 1936 he was instrumental in the organization of the Issui-kai, an organization of Western-style artists whose purpose was “to honor pure and correct art,” and who limited their membership to artists who created realist works.12 

In 1944 he became a teacher at the Tokyo School of Fine Arts (Tokyo Bijutsu Gakkō) and a court artist (teishitsu gigei-in)13, but his artistic life proceeded unabated.  He devoted himself to instructing young artists until 1952, in which year, with his old friend Umehara Ryūzaburō, he received the Order of Cultural Merit.

His last years were spent at Yugawara in Kanagawa Prefecture, where he pursued his spare style of painting.  In 1955 at sixty-seven he died of heart failure after contracting pneumonia.  A collection of his writings, Gaka no me (“An Artist’s Eye,” Zauhō Kankōkai, 1956) was published posthumously.

The Artist’s Woodblock Prints

Prints by Yasui are rare, but he saw prints as a useful step in oil painting, believing that the making of prints "is instrumental in expressing things by lines and colors."14  Japan's Independent Administrative Institution National Museum of Art shows 15 prints, in addition to this collection's print, in their database.15

While Merritt states that the works of Yasui "were reproduced as woodblock prints," the word "reproduced" suggesting fukusei-hanga, I've seen no examples of woodblock prints reproduced from his paintings.16  At least for the nine prints pictured below, along with this collection's print, they are original designs created by Yasui to be produced as woodblock prints by others, with his creative oversight. 

Merritt goes on to discuss Yasui's prints in some detail, as follows:

"In 1932 he sought the services of a sōsaku-hanga artist and skilled carver Hiratsuka Un’ichi, to make blocks for two prints, Woman in Chair and Fruits, to be published by Ishihara Ryūichi of Kyūryūdō.  Hiratsuka, working in close association with Yasui, carved the desired blocks, but Yasui sought the services of a regular artisan to carve the blocks for other prints to be published by Kyūryūdō and Katō Junji.  Although he probably felt empathy for Hiratsuka as a creative artist, Yasui seems to have concluded that Hiratsuka’s carving, because of its individual uniqueness, detracted from his own expression."17

 
Artist and His Model, 1934
The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo
(P01538)

 
Woman Leaning on a Chair, 1934
The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo
(P01521)
 
Early Summer, 1933
The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo
(P01523)

 
Landscape in the Boso Peninsula, 1932
(as titled by the The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo)
(P01539)
Gaibo Fukei. View Outside a Studio Window
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
(55.357)
 
Woman Listening to a Record, 1935
The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo
(P01541)
Girl Listening to a Record Player, 1935
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
(55.80)
 
Fruits, 1934
(as titled by the The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo)
(P01522)
Pineapple, grapes, pears and an orange. Arrangement on a white cloth against blue background
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
(54.95)


 
Autumn on Lake Towada, 1935
The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo
(P01540)
 
Roses, 1934
The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo
(P01537)

Fishes and Snails, 1934
The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo
(P01525)
   

1 Modern Currents in Japanese Art, Michiaki Kawakita, Weatherhill/Heibonsha, 1974, p. 115.
2 Among the many Japanese artists who were in Paris during at least part of Yasui's sojourn were Wado Sanzō (1883-1968), Yamamoto Kanae (1882-1946), Mitsutani Kunishirō 1874-1936), Yunoki Hisata (1885-1970), Umehara Ryūzaburō (1888-1986), Kobayashi Mango (1870-1947) and Kuwashige Giichi (1883-1943) and Fujita Tsuguharu (aka Leonard Fujita, 1886–1968).
3 website of the Bridgestone Museum. http://www.bridgestone-museum.gr.jp/en/collection/artist75/
4 Paris in Japan: The Japanese Encounter with European Painting; Takashima, Rimer and Bolas, The Japan Foundation and Washington University, 1987, p. 114.
5 In 1912 several painters of the younger Bunten group petitioned Kuroda [Seiki] for a separate section of the Bunten in which to exhibit paintings of the new Western art styles, since the nihonga [Japanese art]division had been granted such a section.  Kuroda refused on the grounds that there were “no new schools in yōga, for it was all representative of the new style.”  Discouraged by the encounter, these younger painters joined in opposition to the official stand and in 1914 began their own group, called the Nika-kai (Second Division Group).  The Nika-kai attracted several promising names through its declaration that “this exhibit is open to all who wish to participate, with the exception of those who have applied to the Bunten.”  Ishii Hakutei, Tsuda Seifū, Umehara Ryūzaburō, Yamashita Shintarō, Kosugi Misei, Arishima Ikuma, Sakamoto Hanjirō, Minami Kunzō, and Yasui Sōtarō helped to stir interest in the Nika-kai by competing among themselves for newer, more original modes of expression, and this sudden surge of creative experimentation was one event which set the tone of Western-style painting in the Taishō era.  The three figures of most enduring reputation among these were Sakamoto Hanjirō, Umehara Ryūzaburō, and Yasui Sōtarō.  [Source: Arts of Japan 6: Meiji Western Painting, Minoru Harada, Weatherhill/Shibundo, 1974, p. 124
6 op. cit., Paris in Japan, p. 114.
7 ibid.
8 op. cit. Bridgestone Museum
9 Inexorable Modernity: Japan's Grappling With Modernity in the Arts, Hiroshi Nara, Lexington Books, 2007, p. 54.
10 Umehara Ryūzaburō, another Western-style Kyoto artist and a friend of Yasui's from childhood.
11 op. cit. Paris in Japan, p. 114
12 Guide to Modern Japanese Woodblock Prints: 1900-1975, Helen Merritt, University of Hawaii Press, 1992, p. 186.
13 The system of appointing Imperial Household Artists (Teishitsu Gigeiin) was established in the Meiji period for the promotion of the arts and crafts in Japan. An appointment was for life and the artist was treated as an official appointed by the emperor and granted a pension. In return, the artist was ordered to produce works of art and provide advice and suggestions as requested by the director of the Imperial Household Museum (presently Tokyo National Museum).
The system of appointing Imperial Household Artists (Teishitsu Gigeiin) was established in the Meiji period for the promotion of the arts and crafts in Japan. An appointment was for life and the artist was treated as an official appointed by the emperor and granted a pension. In return, the artist was ordered to produce works of art and provide advice and suggestions as requested by the director of the Imperial Household Museum (presently Tokyo National Museum).
14 Japanese Wood-block Prints, Shizuya Fujikake, Japan Travel Bureau, 1938 revised 1949, p. 137.
15 http://search.artmuseums.go.jp/search_e/sakuhin_list.php?sakka=1612#
16 Modern Japanese Woodblock Prints - The Early Years, Helen Merritt, University of Hawaii Press, 1998, p. 100.
17 ibid., p. 101.