Azechi Umetarô (畦地梅太郎 1902-99) was born in Ehime prefecture in Shikoku. He first studied painting by correspondence course. In 1920 he moved to Tokyo, delivering newspapers but continuing with the art course. He had little choice but to return home after the devastating 1923 earthquake, but managed to move back to Tokyo in 1925 to work in a government printing office. Azechi began making prints by scratching out designs on lead plates, inking them and using a teacup as a "baren" (馬楝) or print-rubbing tool. Azechi was later befriended by the artist Hiratsuka Un'ichi (平塚運一 1895-1997), who supported his entrance into art exhibitions, such as those held by the Nihon Sôsaku Hanga Kyôkai (Japan Creative Print Association) in 1924 (he joined the association in 1932), where Azechi eventually met other artists, such as Maekawa Senpan (前川千帆 1888-1960). However, Kôshirô Onchi (恩地 孝四郎 1891-1955) was his greatest influence. Onchi encouraged Azechi to rely upon his own experience in the pursuit of art and life as an artist. Azechi quit his job at the printing office and became a freelance artist. His prints from the 1920s-30s often depicted landscapes, but he engaged with other subjects, as demonstrated by our present example. After World War II he developed his distinctive style using simplified forms and flat areas of bold colors, usually portraying mountains and mountain men, subjects for which he is best known He also gained some renown in Japan as an essayist on the subject. An accomplished mountaineer, Azechi led a vigorous outdoor lifestyle well into his 90s.
For more about this artist, see Azechi Umetarô Biography.
Pre-World War II dôjin zasshi (同人雑誌) or coterie magazines were generally privately issued and often short-lived art/literary magazines sponsored by groups of writers and artists. Dôjin were issued from the beginning of the twentieth century until the early 1970s, although nearly all were active only before World War II. Despite small circulations, coterie magazines were widely distributed among woodblock-print aficionados. Exemplified by an independent spirit and experimentation in layout and content, dôjin were critical to the development and sustenance of sôsaku hanga (creative prints: 創作版画), providing many artists with the only venues to show their work in the pre-War years. Sewn together or compiled as loose sheets within envelopes, the magazines featured many hand-printed images, although some were mokuhan kikai zuri (machine woodblock printings: 木版機械摺) or photomechanical reproductions. Early examples include those found in the literary magazines Hôsun ("One's Ideas" or "Square Inch," 35 issues, 1907-11) and its shorter-lived predecessor Heitan ("Flatness," 5 issues, 1905-06). Han geijutsu ("Print Art," 1932-36), published by Shirô to Kuro (White & Black) in Tokyo by the Shiro to Kuro-sha, was an important magazine in the decade preceding the Second World War.
Volume 1, No. 3 of Han geijutsu (Print Art) included several monochrome illustrations printed by the mokuhan kikai zuri process, plus two tipped-in handmade woodblock prints, one by Maekawa Senpan, the other by Azechi Umetarô (the present design).
Azechi's simple but eloquent composition used only two colors, red and blue, which when superimposed yielded a third color, purple. The raised-arm gestures signal friendship and solidarity during a period of international economic depression and the rise of leftist labor unionism in Japan (and elsewhere).
References: Azechi's work has been discussed and illustrated in many Western publications, among them:
- Merritt, Helen: Modern Japanese Woodblock Prints: The Early Years, Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1990, pp. 146, 150, 204, 234-235, 254, 281-282, 284.
- Michener, James: The Modern Japanese Print. An Appreciation. Rutland, VT: Tuttle, 1962, pp. 39-42.
- Smith, Lawrence: The Japanese Print Since 1900: Old Dreams and New Visions. London: British Museum, 1983, pp. 104, 118; no. 91a.
- Statler, Oliver: Modern Japanese Prints: An Art Reborn. Rutland, VT: Tuttle, 1956, pp. 136-141, 199-200; nos. 74-81, 82.
- Uhlenbeck, Chris, Reigle Newland, Amy, de Vries, Maureen: Waves of Renewal. Modern Japanese prints from the Nihon no Hanga collection, Amsterdam. Leiden: Hotei Publishing, 2016, pp. 285-288.
Azechi Umetarô also produced an informative book on the making of prints:
- Umetarô Azechi, Japanese Woodblock Prints: Their Techniques and Appreciation. Tokyo and Rutland, VT: Toto Shuppan Co., 1963.