Sasajima Kihei (笹島喜平 1906-93), born in Mashiko, Tochigi prefecture, was a close friend of the celebrated potter Hamada Shôji (濱田庄司 1894-1978). He, studied with the sôsaku hanga printmaker Un'ichi Hiratsuka (平塚運一 1895-1997) in 1935 and the Mingei-influenced printmaker Munakata Shikô (棟方志功 1903-75) in 1938. He first exhibited at the Kokuga-kai (National Picture Association: 国画会) exhibition in 1940, From 1945 he worked as a print artist, mostly in monochrome. Sasajima joined Munakata in founding the Nihon Hanga-in (Japanese Print Institute: 日本版画院) in 1952, and five years later, gained recognition after exhibiting in Yugoslavia in 1957. Other exhibitions included Tokyo bienniales over the course of 10 years (1957-66). In the U.S., he had a two-man show (with Okiie Hashimoto (橋本興家 1889-1993) in Washington DC in 1957. From 1962 he concentrated on religious themes, including subjects with the "sacred mountain" Mt. Fuji, and with the Buddhist deity Fudô Myôô. He also produced landscapes of Nara.
After an illness in 1959 made it difficult to rub pigments into paper with the baren, Sasajima developed a method of forcing paper into deeply cut blocks with a press and dabbing raised areas with inked pads. He cut the wood block in the usual way, then sealed it with a water-resistant varnish. He next dampened a thin but strong white sheet of paper with a mixture of carboxymethyl-cellulose glue and water, then placed the dampened paper on the block, running it through a heavily-padded etching press with heavy felt blankets, forcing the paper into the cut depressions in the block. After drying the paper, he hand-applied ink with a dauber to what would have been the back of the paper in conventional printing. The cut-out depressions of the block show as raised areas in the paper.
Early in his career, before he turned to his dabbing method, Sasajima was interviewed by Oliver Statler. Sasajima told him that Munakata was his teacher: "Munakata is a genius ... He awes me," although he "was not a very good teacher, but I absorbed a great deal from him." Sasajima wanted to "try to find a Japanese expression for the Japanese ... I want to get away from the perspective and third dimension ... and try to achieve the two dimensional quality of calligraphy." Statler thought that Sasajima used a longer line than Hiratsuka's that was closer to the brush stroke, which Sasajima believed was influenced by Munakata, calligraphy, and Nanga painters (Southern-style or literati schools of Chinese painters), particularly the suiboku-ga (水墨画 ink-wash paintings) master Sesshû Tôyô (雪舟等楊 1420-1506), and the painters and calligraphers Ike no Taiga (池大雅 1723–1776), and Tomioka Tessai (富岡 鉄斎, 1837-1924).
In Sasajima's print there is an animated rhythm in the band of clouds sweeping past Mt. Fuji, enhanced by the even more "active" tree branches in the foreground. The design seems to be, in one sense, all about movement. Yet the majestic mountain peak rises above it all, imposing a contradictory sense of stillness and permanence. Close examination of Sasajima's technique rewards the effort—the deep grooves in the unprinted areas add to the vivid rendering of Japan's iconic symbol.
Sasajima's works are in many public collections, including the Art Institute of Chicago; Berlin Oriental Art Museum; Boston Museum of Fine Arts; British Museum; Hamamatsu Municipal Museum, Japan; Harvard Art Museum; Mashiko Museum of Ceramic Art (Sasajima Kihei Hall); Oxford University, England; National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo; National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto; National Museum of Art, Osaka; Portland Art Museum; and Tochigi Prefectural Museum. The aforementioned Sasajima Kihei Hall in Mashiko houses nearly 300 prints and 200 sketches by the artist.
References: Oliver Statler, Modern Japanese Prints: An Art Reborn, Rutland, VT: Tuttle, 1956, pp. 166-67; Helen Merritt and Nanako Yamada, Guide to Modern Japanese Woodblock Prints: 1900-1975. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1992, p. 131; Donald Jenkins, Images of a Changing World: Japanese Prints of the Twentieth Century. Portland, OR: Portland Art Museum, 1983. p. 112; Gaston Petit, 44 Modern Japanese Print Artists. Tokyo/New York: Kodansha, 1973, pp. 112-13 in volume 2 and plates 189-194