Azechi Umetarô (畦地梅太郎 1902-99) was born in Ehime prefecture in Shikoku. He first studied painting by correspondence course and 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: 日本創作版画協会) 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-1930s 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.
For more about this artist, see Azechi Umetarô Biography.
Taishô ike (Taishô Pond: 大正池) was formed in 1915 when an eruption of nearby volcano Mount Yake (Yake-dake, or "Burning Mountain": 焼岳) dammed the Azusa River (Azusagawa: 梓川). Although the destruction wrought by the event was significant, the Azusa River is again flowing today, while the lake remains. Situated in the resort area of Kamikôchi (上高地 designated a Special Natural Monument) in the Northern Japan Alps of Nagano Prefecture, Taishô Pond and the volcanically active Mount Yake are part of a very popular scenic area that attracts thousands of Japanese and international visitors each summer.
In his brilliantly realized woodcut, Azechi captured the particular ambiance of Taishô ike, in part by placing the decayed trees in the foreground, giving them a prominance on a par with that of Mt. Yake. These partly submerged, withered trees, reflected in the bright blue water, stand scarred and upright as haunting evidence of a massive natural disaster. Below a vibrant blue sky stands a snow-covered Mount Yake, its peaks mirrored in the still water. Azechi's use of soft-edge forms printed in a loose, expressive manner, yielded a painterly image with complex textures. This is one of his finest mountain scenes, and one that is highly sought-after and rare in this early pre-war state. Later printings were done with much more saturated, high-contrast colors lacking the subtle textures of our example.
On the verso in the left margin there are printed characters for the title and artist's name. Between the title and name is a (partly rubbed off) three-character stamp reading Hanpusaku ("Distributed work": 頒布作), indicating that the print was available only through a hanpukai (distribution club; see image at right and further explanation below). Later editions of Azechi's design are common, but our impression of the first edition with the seal of a hanpukai is quite rare and exceedingly difficult to acquire.
* Note: The seal of a hanpukai (buyer's or distribution club: 頒布会) on the reverse of this impression, which reads Hanpusaku ("Distributed work": 頒布作) indicates that it is a first-edition printing supported by subscribers of Azechi's early works. Some twentieth-century sôsaku hanga ("creative print": 創作版画) publishers involved in hanpukai included the Kobe Hanga no Ie (House of Print; Yamaguchi Hisayoshi), Nihon Hangasha (Japan Print Co., Tokyo; Hasegawa Tsuneo), Sôsaku Hanga Kurabu (Creative Print Club; Nakajima Jûtarô; published the Shin Tokyo hyakkei, 100 views of new Tokyo: 新東京百景), and Hangasô (Print House; Hirai Hiroshi). Private hanpukai included Kogan [Shin] Azuma Nishiki-e [Ga]kai (Kogan’s [New] "Brocade Pictures of the East" Association; Tobari Kôgan). Also, in the 1920s, Nakagawa Isaku, Benji Asada, Takeji Asano, and Tokuriki Tomikichirô formed the Yonin Sôsaku Hanga Hanpukai (Four-Men Creative Print Distribution Club: 四人創作版画頒布会) in Kyoto.
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 on the making of prints:
- Umetarô Azechi, Japanese Woodblock Prints: Their Techniques and Appreciation. Tokyo and Rutland, VT: Toto Shuppan Co., 1963.