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 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 日本創作版画協会 founded 1918). 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, 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.
Although Kawanishi is celebrated for his vibrant views of Kobe harbor, he also produced a large number of floral subjects, as well as views of gardens and ponds in which flowers were focal points in the compositions. In the present example, a jug filled with yuri (lilies: 百合) sits on a cloth-covered table. Kawanishi's signature palette of primary poster colors, complemented by pale violet and pink hues, have been applied as "color fields" carved with a curved chisel (i.e., not a knife) to produce soft edges, all without dark outlines defining the shapes. The black background is especially effective in accentuating the lively forms of the lilies. Kawanishi approach constitutes a distinctive and immediately recognizable style within the sôsaku hanga (creative print: 創作版画) group of printmakers.
A Historical Note: Lilies have little or no symbolic meaning for the Japanese, nor is the flower a traditional design motif. However, in the eighth or ninth-century poetry compilation called the Man'yôshû ("Collection of 10,000 leaves": 万葉集), the lily was called wasure-gusa, the "plant of forgetfulness", which would have been a comfort to someone pining for an absent lover.
Our impression is accompanied by the original presentation folder.
- Kobe City Koiso Memorial Museum of Art: (Kawanishi Hide, the retrospective. 120th anniversary of his birth (Kobe shiritsu Koiso kinen bijutsukan (神戸市立小磯記念美術館), Kawanishi hide kaiko ten --- Seitan ichihyakunijû nen (川西回顧展 生誕120年). Kobe: 2014.
- John Fiorillo, Kawanishi web page
- John Dower, The Elements of Japanese Design: A Handbook of Family Crests, Heraldry & Symbolism. New York: Weatherhill, 1971, p. 61.
- Merrily Baird, Symbols of Japan: Thematic Motifs in Art and Design. New York: Rizzoli, 2001, p. 87.