Saturday, 9 November 2013

Thirty-six views of Hideo Hagiwara


This is not the first time I have written about an artist who lost a substantial amount of work as a result of damage caused by bombing during the second war. Paul Leschhorn's studio in Frankfurt was destroyed, as were many of the blocks of the linocutter, Claude Flight, in London. But the effect on the Japanese artist, Hideo Hagiwara, was so great, he virtually had to begin again at the age of thirty-seven.

Printmakers and print publishers are particularly susceptible to this kind of thing. A major earthquake in Tokyo in 1923 meant that many blocks stored in publishing houses were destroyed. It's perhaps not so surprising that so much of the work that Hagiwara made after the war looks is deliberately naïve, like someone who has gone back to basics.

But what we are left with is a rather distorted view of his career. He began printmaking as a student in Tokyo during the 1930s, but almost all the work available dates only from the sixties onwards. By that time, in a fashion that was uniquely his own, he used abstraction as pure as Mark Rothko or Ben Nicholson, alongside naïve figurative work that makes a mockery of the standard art history idea of development. What happened with Hagiwara is that everything eventually overlaps and interrupts.

Certainly, this was the first time I researched an artist and had to make sure there were not two of them working with the same name. The Japanese have the kind of talent that can make a universal art out of a personal dilemma. I suppose one way that Hagiwara approached this was to base a series of prints made in the eighties and nineties, on Hokusai's Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji from the 1830s. The concentration on motif and its repetition is one of the most forceful aspects of Japanese art, and one that appealed a great deal to Western artists.

The series was not a straight lift from Hokusai. In his work, Mount Fuji often provides a witty but trivial focus for the print, with the human activity surrounding it becoming the real subject. With Hagiwara, the mountain is always the subject, even when partially obscured. Also, unlike Hokusai, he uses shape in a fluid way to suggest incompleteness within the work itself that is remarkably similar to the way Allen Seaby made his woodcuts well before the first war.

Adapting western styles and techniques was nothing new in Japanese  printmaking. From the earliest days of ukiyo-e, an artist like Hokusai was using a new European pigment such as Prussian blue with such frequency, it has become synonymous with his work. It was not just Western perspective that had to be learned, but also the realistic use of cloud and shadow. In learning foreign conventions like that, the artists were able to question their use and divert them simply because they were not bound by them.


By the time we come to an artist as sophisticated as Hagiwara, what with all the loans and counter-loans, we hardly know where we are. But he is one of the most simpatico and lyrical of abstract artists, more subtle and complex in his representations of sand gardens that Okiee Hashimoto (also featured on Modern Printmakers). In his hands they become stone-rubbings of themselves and everything floats lucidly as if he were representing consciousness itself. (The image immediately above shows the reverse of January.)



  1. Great Post. An artist I didn't know (but should have). The abstract works have a lushness of surface and what must be amazing depth of pigment. I find the surface and texture of the 4th image you posted very appealing while the "sand garden" in the penultimate image with the baren marks competing with the apparent resist of the size (unless he was printing from the back?). I like the Mt. Fuji prints too, but in a very different way; I agree, I would have never suspected they are by the same hand(s).

  2. I'm pleased you got so much out of the post, Andrew. I've added the reverse image of 'January' and it may give you more of an idea what he was doing. You know more about technique than I do.

    The title doesn't give a lot away, but I assume what we see are objects suspended in ice, literally a floating world. But the Japanese really have us beat on multiple association.

    He was a very prolific artist, always trying new things, so it was valuable to hear how complex you thought his technique was.