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Archive: Kawanishi Hide (川西英)

Hâgenbekku sâkasu (Hagenbeck Circus: ハーゲンベックサーカス)
No artist seal
(H x W)
Sôsaku hanga woodblock print
32.3 x 48.2 cm
Excellent, self-printed impression
Excellent color, unbacked; vertical centerfold (typical for a book sheet) and other minor vertical creases
Price (USD/¥):

Inquiry: Ref #KWN13


Kawanishi Hide (川西英), 1894-1965, whose given name was Hideo, 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 several 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 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 (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.

NOTE: The "Carl Hagenbeck Circus" was led by Carl Hagenbeck (1844–1913, born in Hamburg, Germany), a collector and dealer in "exotic" animals, and a trainer who, starting around 1887, pioneered the use of rewards-based animal training instead of fear-based training. During a trip to the U.S. in 1906, Hagenbeck sold his traveling animal show to Benjamin Wallace, who renamed it the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, basing it in Peru, Indiana. Hagenbeck then opened his great zoo, the Tierpark Hagenbeck at Stellingen, near Hamburg in 1907, where animals lived in more natural environments. Today his ideas are followed by most large zoos. After his death, his sons Heinrich and Lorenz continued the zoo and circus business, and the Hamburg zoo continues to carry his name. Meanwhile, the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus traveled across America in the early part of the 20th century. At its peak, it was the second-largest circus in America next to Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus. The Hagenbeck-Wallace circus went on a very successful world tour in 1933, including much of Japan, but ceased operations in 1938.



Kawanishi was fascinated by foreign circuses, although not so with the traditional Japanese brand. As early as 1918, he visited a hippodrome circus and afterward made oil paintings of acrobats, horses, elephants, and other related subjects. He loved the gathering of so many foreign visitors and the strange animals. He first saw a lion at just such a show, which he later referred to as the "Chiarini Circus," a term once used by the Japanese for any foreign circus, but taken from a much earlier company name that was run by Giuseppe Chiarini (1823-97), and which toured Japan in 1886 and 1889. Kawanishi once said (see D'Orlando ref. below), "When you entered the tent, the smell of the animals, the smell of the circus, would merge into one. My heart captured everything moving before my eyes: the red robe of the animal trainer, with the golden decorations glittering in the light." Kawanishi communicated directly with the Hagenbeck Circus in 1933, asking them for a poster. In response, they gave him printings of seemingly all their poster designs. A letter (in German) from Lorenz Hagenbeck of the Tierpark Hagenbeck at Stellingen thanked Kawanishi for sending his woodcut prints and wished him success in his sales. A facsimile of the letter was included in a 1934 publication of Kawanishi's circus prints (see book-cover below).

Kawanishi's design, two pages on one folded sheet intended for book publication, is a test proof that was self-printed by Kawanishi in his own studio. It should not be confused with the edition that appeared a year later (1934) in the book Kyokuba Hagenbeck (Hagenbeck Circus) published by Hanga Sô, Ginza, Tokyo (operated by Hirai Hiroshi). There were many postcards produced in Japan from photographs taken at the Hagenbeck Circus. On the left below, a huge throng of visitors is shown outside the big tent. A similar view of the tent can be seen on the right below in Kawanishi's design for the 1934 book.

Hâgenbekku dai sâkasu (Hagenbeck Big Circus: ハーゲンベック大サーカス)
Japanese postcard, 1933 (precise location in Japan unknown)
Kawanishi Hide: Sâkasu (Circus: サーカス)
Cover for the 1934 Hagenbeck book

Kawanishi's renderings of equestrian riders, clowns, acrobats, trapeze artists, lion tamers, seal trainers, and elephant trainers capture the spectacle of the circus in a colorful and playful manner. His fascination with the circus world and his woodcuts detailing the various entertainments, although built upon a different aesthetic, remind us of the American artist Alexander Calder's (1898-1976) line drawings and lithographs on the same themes. Both artists expressed a childlike joy and excitement about the marvels to be witnessed in a circus.

For other circus designs by Kawanishi, see KWN10, KWN11, and KWN15.


  • D'Orlando, A., de Vries, M, Uhlenbeck, C. and Wessels, E.: Nostalgia and Modernity: The Styles of Komura Settai and Kawanishi Hide. Amsterdam: Nihon no Hanga, spring 2012 (exhibition cat.).
  • Kawanishi Hide, Gashû "Kôbe hyakkei" Kawanishi Hide ga aishita fûkei (Collected pictures, "100 Scenes of Kobe," favorite scenes of Kawanishi Hide: 画集『神戸百景』川西英が愛した風景), 2008.
  • 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.
  • Uhlenbeck, C., Newland, A.R., de Vries, M.: Waves of renewal: modern Japanese prints, 1900 to 1960, Selections from the Nihon no hanga collections, Amsterdam. Hotei Publishing, 2016, pp. 240-246.