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Archive: Kawanishi Hide (川西英)

Carmen (Karumeso: カルメソ) book with 8 large sheets folded in half
Signed in the block on the cover and colophon: Kawanishi Hide hanga (川西英版画), and in the blocks on the drawings as Hide (英)
Artist seal: Hide (ひで) below signatures on interior pages
Hanga Sô, Ginza, Tokyo (operated by Hirai Hiroshi)
(H x W)

Sôsaku hanga woodblock-printed book
(open) 44.8 x 30.3 cm
(Closed) 22.4 x 30.3 cm

Excellent color and good condition; front and back covers toned (especially at the top) and separated from upper staple, light fold (in the extremely thick paper) in upper corners of each double page
Price (USD/¥):

Inquiry: Ref #KWN15


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: There is some confusion about how some of Kawanishi's books were produced, but the following seems to be the actual story regarding three publications in particular. Our source is Kanai Noriko, curator, Kobe City Museum (Kôbe-shiritsu Hakubutsukan: 神戸市立博物館), who is the world’s authority on the works of Kawanishi Hide. In 1934, Kawanishi teamed up with the Tokyo publisher Hanga Sô to produce three books: two on the circus theme and one on the opera "Carmen." Operated by Hirai Hiroshi, the small publishing firm Hanga Sô was in business from 1/1933 to 9/1936, specializing in limited-edition books from blocks carved by sôsaku-hanga artists. The blocks were carved and proofed in Kawanishi's atelier in Kobe, but were then sent to Tokyo and printed on paper derived from the cores of industrial paper cylinders by means of a novel type of machine press. Housed in a trade school now known as the Tokyo Institute of Technology, the press was operated by their technician. Thus, contrary to what has been written in other sources, the images in these three books, while self-carved, were not self-printed by the artist. Moreover, the experimental and unique nature of this enterprise places these three books in a rarefied category of prints and multiples created through the adaptation of industrial-age techniques. To our knowledge, this exciting but fraught paper-core, machine-press technique was never used by other artists and publishers.


It is not clear to us exactly when Kawanishi might have heard Bizet's opera Carmen, but he was surely thrilled by it. He recalled, "After Western circuses, Western Theater also frequently came to Kobe. This was an Italian opera troupe. You could see an authentic opera performance that changed every night. However, tickets were expensive and since I am quite poor, it was quite heart-breaking." Could he have also seen the 1929 Japanese film titled Carmen directed by Takeuchi Shunichi? Regardless, in 1933, Kawanishi designed a single-sheet ôban-size print for each of the four acts, plus an ôban sheet for the eight principal roles with English texts identifying the role names and vocal registers of the singers. Then, in late 1934, he designed different prints with the same scenes for each act, as well as another grouping of small figures in the eight roles. These images, which we are offering here, were published in Kawanishi's book Carmen (Karumeso: カルメソ). The book was published by Hirai Hiroshi of the firm Hanga Sô, Ginza from blocks carved and proofed in Kawanishi's atelier in Kobe.

The four scenes represent the following:

  • Act I: Carmen sings the provocative Habanera (L'amour est un oiseau rebelle) outside a tobacco factory (the sign "Fabrica de Tabacos" is at the right in Kawanishi's print). While men plead with her to choose a lover, she throws a flower to the soldier Don José.
  • Act 2: Two months later, Escamillo introduces himself with the celebrated "Toreador Song" while attempting to seduce Carmen. Don José, standing on the right, watches them, fuming with jealousy.
  • Act 3: Two of the cigarette girls, Frasquita and Mercédès (seen just left of center lying on the ground), amuse themselves by reading fortunes, which foretell the death of Carmen and Don José. Carmen, now bored with José, scornfully tells him to go back to his mother. We can see Micaëla (whom his mother wants him to marry) imploring José to leave with her, as his mother is dying.
  • Act 4: Don José pleads with Carmen to return to him, but she contemptuously throws down the ring he gave her. Enraged, José stabs her and then wails, "Ah! Carmen! Ma Carmen adorée!"

Our impression of Kawanishi's Carmen is well preserved, despite the browning and light spotting of the paper, which seems to always be the case with this book. This is one of Kawanishi's most sought-after works. The experimental nature of the book's production process, which repurposed non-archival, extremely heavy paper (more like sheets of cardboard) while forcing the ungainly marriage between a brute press and Kawanishi's delicate woodblocks, resulted in virtually all known examples coming down to us with toning, foxing, dislocated bindings, and multiple splashes of spray pigment. Nevertheless, this was a standout undertaking even beyond the often experimental limits of the sôsaku hanga tradition.

For other circus designs by Kawanishi, see KWN10, KWN11, and KWN13


  • 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.