April 16, 2021

Hasui Kawase: A Master of Rain

Jay Kapadia

At the start of Hasui’s career, Japan was in a period of transition from the Meiji into the Taisho. Within two generations, the country had moved from a feudal into a model modern society. Foreign investments and industrialization opened Japan to an international audience for trade and exchange of culture through art, in particular printmaking. 

Portrait of Hasui Kawase, 1939

Demonstrating an affinity for drawing as a toddler, Kawase Hasui’s (1883-1957) parents recognized and nurtured their son’s ability, and when he came of age he was sent to the school of the painter Aoyagi Bokusen. There Hasui learned brush painting and drawing, assimilating specific Western painting styles into his oeuvre. After his studies Hasui, with great reluctance, returned home to manage the family business as a silk braid merchant. Luckily, at the age of 26 he was emancipated from his familial obligations and returned to the pursuit of art as a career. 

He studied Western-style painting for two years under the tutelage of Okada Saburosuke, a leading figure in Yōga style painting, a movement known for its heavy mimicry of European painting traditions. Two years later, Hasui changed teachers and began studying under Kaburagi, the leading artist for what is known as Bijin-ga, “the beautiful person” genre, which focused mainly on depicting lovely young Japanese women as seen in ukiyo-e woodblock prints.

Saburosuke was the founder of Kinreisha School which Hasui attended. The rigor of the school’s programming led to a partnership with Shōzaburō Watanabe, an erudite English-speaking, business-savvy print dealer and publisher with formidable sales channels to the North American and European markets. Watanabe was the champion for the emerging Shin-Hanaga movement, which revitalized traditional ukiyo-e art rooted in the Edo and Meiji periods. His publishing company maintained the traditional ukiyo-e collaboration system of printmaking production, with 1) Artist 2) Carver 3) Printer and 4) Publisher all engaged and devoted to their assigned division of labor. By maintaining this strict production regimen, Watanabe was able to offer the precepts of traditional printmaking practice as a selling point to his Western audience. At this time printmaking in Japan proper was considered base and commercial, but Watanabe successfully tapped into the Orientalist fervor sweeping Europe and North America, and his ability to appeal to the Japonisme craze subsequently elevated printmaking as fine art in the West.  

Despite Hasui being an inexperienced printmaker, Watanabe recognized the artist’s talent and quickly added him to his roster of artists. This new partnership established Hasui, and allowed him to extensively travel Japan, gathering material from known tourist attractions, temples, shrines, pagodas, and of course Mt. Fuji. Somewhat akin to the French Impressionists, Hasui would complete his drawings en plein air; due to his short-sighted vision and need for thick-lense glasses the traveling artist would later have to add in color and smaller details at whichever local inn he was residing at. Eventually, Hasui became best known abroad for his work rather than in the country of his birth. 

Kawase, Hasui, Japanese Woodblock Print, Rainy Night at Maekawa
Available of iGavel Auctions until April 27, 2021

Traditionally, rain was not depicted in Japanese printmaking, nor was the use of shadows. Yet these two elements are what distinguished Hasui in the Shin-Hanaga movement. Distinct features of the artist’s visual vignettes, such as Rainy Night at Maekawa, where he used lighting and shadow to depict a nostalgic, romanticized Japan, drawing from his Western Impressionist counterparts, Hatsui easily attracted international collectors to his work. Unabashedly playing into the Occidental taste and nostalgia for  ‘feudal’ Japan, his city-scenes, despite Tokyo being a sprawling urban center, are presented as quiet, somber, and village-like.

Kawase, Hasui, Japanese Woodblock Print, Rainy Season at Ryoshimachi Shinagawa
Available on iGavel Auctions until April 27, 2021

Hasui evokes a calm of tranquility with atmospheric compositions encapsulating the sound of pattering rain, chill air, wet, squelching footsteps. Often he steered away from using bold hues and maintained thin, soft washes of muted color. Though he regarded himself as a realist, Hatsui did not like to invest too much effort depicting people; given his poor eye-sight, it was vexing to draw with minute detail because of people being moving subjects. 

Regardless of his esteemed reputation abroad and demand for his prints, he never lived the wealthy life - his travel expenditures were large, and many times he had to take advances on his earnings from his publisher. He acknowledged with pride that he was an artist who lived sustainably, never having to moonlight at other occupations, though misfortune was to follow. 

On September 1st, 1923, an earthquake measuring 7.9 on the Mw scale struck Kanto, just outside of Tokyo. In the cataclysm, Hasui’s home and studio were destroyed, the bulk of his woodblocks, paintings, equipment, and other works lost in the devastation. He was never able to recover from the loss. A decade and a half later Japan was at war against the Allied powers. The Army Art Association of Japan tightened control on the arts and culture, with a focus on promoting propagandistic war artists. Given the reallocation of Japan’s already scant resources, artist materials became rationed. Futhermore, Hasui’s home was destroyed a second time from aerial bombings. The market for Japanese art abroad collapsed; Hasui never recovered and the Shin-Hanaga movement never re-attained popularity in the post-war years.  

In 1956, in acknowledgement of his outstanding career, Hasui was named a Living National Treasure by the Japanese Government. The Committee for the Preservation of Intangible Cultural Heritage designated Hasui's Zojo Temple in Snow as an Intangible Cultural Treasure, the greatest artistic honor in post-war Japan. Approximately one year later, he died of cancer.