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. 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 nineties.
The portfolio Gendai meika sôsaku hanga shû featured 10 artists, one print each, in editions of 100. They were Azechi Umetarô (1902-1999), Izumi Shigeru (1922-1995), Komai Tetsuo (1920-1976), Nakao Yoshitaka (1911-1994), Hagiwara Hideo (1913-2007), Maekawa Senpan (1888-1960), Maeda Maso (1904-1974), Miyashita Tokio (1930–2011), Yamaguchi Gen (1896-1976), and Tagawa Suiô (act. c. 1950s).
This example is one of many snowmen depicted by Azechi in his very popular prints. They bridge the gap between representational and entirely abstract sôsaku hanga (creative prints: 創作版画). Among these woodcuts, those in which the human figure has been reduced to highly stylized shapes come across as rugged, simplified, and humorous — they have a direct and at times totemic appeal. Azechi once said that he liked "simple, rustic work" and disliked "slickness or sophistication." Our example surely fits into this classification.
References: Azechi's work has been discussed and illustrated in many Western publications, among them:
- Oliver Statler, Modern Japanese Prints: An Art Reborn (1956)
- James Michener, The Modern Japanese Print. An Appreciation (1962)
- Lawrence Smith, The Japanese Print Since 1900: Old Dreams and New Visions (1983).
Azechi Umetarô also produced an informative book of his own on the making of prints:
- Umetarô Azechi, Japanese Woodblock Prints: Their Techniques and Appreciation. Tokyo and Rutland, VT: Toto Shuppan Co., 1963