Kawanishi Hide (川西英), 1894-1965, was born and worked in Kobe, an international port city that inspired much of his subject matter. He was employed as a postmaster, but his ancestors were merchants, particularly traders in the alcoholic spirits sake (酒 or nihonshu 日本酒), mirin (味醂), and shôchû (焼酎), which they transported to Tokyo in their fleet of ships.
Kawanishi's family opposed his becoming involved in painting and printmaking. A self-taught artist, Kawanishi started painting in oils, but turned to woodblock printmaking after seeing a print by Yamamoto Kanae (A small bay in Brittany) displayed in a shop window in Osaka. He was not interested in ukiyo-e, although Nagasaki-e naturally fascinated him, with its exotic ships and foreign traders. Gradually abandoning oils, Kawanishi fell under the influence of the Art Deco poster style of the 1920s and first exhibited prints in 1923 with the Nihon Sôsaku-Hanga Kyôkai (Japan Creative Print Association). Other influences were Takehisa Yumeji (竹久夢二), Onchi Kôshirô (恩地孝四郎), Yamamoto Kanae (山本鼎), and European artists such as Lautrec, Gaugin, Van Gogh, Leger, and Matisse.
Kawanishi used poster colors and sumi (Japanese carbon black, i.e., soot, water, and glue), cutting his blocks with a curved chisel to obtain soft edges. He used katsura or ho wood, and printed on hodomura paper. He produced a large number of single-sheet designs (possibly as many as 1,000), as well as printed albums and books, and sets or series. The latter included Shôwa bijin fûzoku jûnitai (Twelve customs of beauties from the Shôwa era), 1929; Kobe jûnigagetsu fûkei (Scenes of Kobe during the twelve months), 1931; and Hanga Kobe hyakkei (Prints of one hundred views of Kobe), 1935. Kawanishi was awarded the Hyôgo Prefecture Culture Prize (1949) and the Kobe Shinbun Peace Prize (1962). His son Kawanishi Yûzaburô (1923-2014) worked in his father's style, but with more international subjects.
For more about this artist, see Kawanishi Biography.
Using his signature palette of bright primary poster colors with no gradations, and limiting his forms to simple shapes, Kawanishi managed to achieve a vibrant view of commercial ships docked in Kobe Harbor. The red lattice tower just behind the yellow boat in the left foreground is Kobe Port Tower (Kôbe Pôto Tawâ: 神戸ポートタワ), a hyperboloid structure that was completed in 1963. It is possible that Kawanishi was attracted to this particular view because of the new tower, although it does not dominate the scene. In a composition that is deceptively spare, there is nevertheless an effective balance and contrast between the stillness suggested by the rigid lines of the buildings and ships versus the mild agitation of the waves. The echoing shapes of the clouds "lean" along parallel diagonals and thus impart a gentle movement to the design.
There is a similar view and treatment of water in the Kawanishi Hide catalogue raisonne (compiled by the artist's son, Yûzaburô).
This impression comes with the title slip (Port of Kobe: 神戸港), machine-printed biography, and backing board burned with the artist's given name (Hide: 英) from the original frame (see illustrations above). The vertical inscription along the right side of the title slip reads: Kawanishi Hide jiga jikoku jizuri hanga (Kawanishi Hide, self-drawn, self-carved, self-printed block print: 川西英 • 自画 • 自刻 • 自摺 • 版画). Besides confirming that Kawanishi was involved in all aspects of creating his harbor scene, the terms "jiga-jikoku-jizuri" expressed the credo of the sôsaku hanga movement, distinguishing its artists from shin hanga and ukiyo-e practitioners who supplied sketches to the publishers but did not carve or print their own designs.
References: Hanga-ka: Kawanishi Hide no sekai, Vol II, no. 193, full page; Fiorillo, Kawanishi web page