|Azechi Umetarô sketching on a drawing pad
Portrait by Sekino Jun'ichirô, 1972
Lithograph on zinc plate
Azechi Umetarô (畦地梅太郎 1902-1999) was born in Ehime Prefecture in Shikoku where his family were farmers in the village of Futana (present-day Uwajima City). He first studied oil painting by correspondence course. In 1920 he moved to Tokyo, delivering newspapers to make a living but continuing with the art course. After the devastating 1923 Great Kantô earthquake, he had little choice but to leave ravaged Tokyo and return home. He managed to move back to big city in 1925 where he found work in a government printing office.
Azechi began making prints by scratching out designs with nails and knives on soft lead plates, inking them, and using a teacup as a "baren" (print-rubbing tool: 馬楝) to impress the image onto paper. Around 1931, when he was denied a bonus at the government office, Azechi quit his job and eked out a living as a free-lance artist. He somehow managed to survive, occasionally by carving and printing designs by other artists including Maekawa Senpan (前川千帆 1888-1960) and Onchi Kôshirô (恩地孝四郎 1891-1955), and by producing designs for book and newspaper illustrations. He also continued to make oil paintings.
Azechi's earliest prints were typically cityscapes influenced by Hiratsuka Un'ichi (平塚運一 1895-1997), whom he sought out and befriended. Hiratsuka encouraged him to switch from lead plates to woodblocks for his prints, and he supported Azechi's entrance into art exhibitions, such as those held by the Nihon Sôsaku Hanga Kyôkai (Japan Creative Print Association: 日本創作版画協会) from 1927, the Shun'yôkai (Spring Principle Association: 春陽会) from 1928, and the Kokugakai (National Picture Association: 国画会) from 1943. Azechi eventually met many other Japanese artists, but it was Onchi who proved to be his greatest influence. Onchi advised him to think about the meaning and function of art and the artist and to search for the essence of his own experience and to trust his innermost feelings. [Merritt, Modern Japanese Woodblock Prints, 1990] As a result, Azechi struck out along his own path, gradually evolving as an artist until his prints were unlike those of any other Japanese artist. All along, he remained true to the credo of the sôsaku hanga ("creative print": 創作版画) movement: jiga, jikoku, jizuri ("self-drawn, self-carved, self-printed": 自画 自刻 自摺).
Azechi's prints from the 1920s and 1930s often featured cityscapes and landscapes. His early landscape style is perhaps best represented by two series, the portfolio of ten prints titled Iyo fûkei (Landscapes of Iyo: 伊予風景) from 1936 (issued in 30 impressions each) and the group of designs simply titled Yama (Mountains: 山) from 1940, the latter characterized by more severe forms and sombre colors.
After World War II, Azechi developed his distinctive style of using simplified forms and flat areas of color, usually portraying mountains and yama-otoko (mountain men: 山男), subjects for which he is best known. Frequently, his yama-otoko were rendered as figurative abstracts, as in the image shown at the top right. Here, a mountaineer in full climbing gear gently holds a black and white bird. It is a large print measuring about 780 x 580 mm, printed in an edition of 50 in 1957.
Over the course of his career, Azechi's prints bridged the gap between the purely representational print genres and the entirely abstract sôsaku hanga. Among these woodcuts, those in which the human figure has been reduced to highly stylized shapes come across as rugged, uncomplicated, and humorous — they have a direct and at times totemic appeal. Indeed, Azechi once said that he liked "simple, rustic work" and disliked "slickness or sophistication."
Azechi was a member of print and art societies, including the Nihon Hanga Kyôkai (Japan Print Association: 日本洋画協会) from 1932 and the aforementioned Kokugakai from 1943. He also contributed prints to several collaborative projects, such as four of the six collections of the Ichimokushû ("First Thursday Collection," vols. 1-4, 1944, 1946-48) issued by the Ichimokukai: ("First Thursday Society": 一木会), the group of sôsaku hanga artists who gathered monthly at Onchi Kôshirô's home. Other projects included the print collections Tokyo kaiko zue (Recollections of Tokyo: 東京回顧圖會) and Shin Tokyo hyakkei (One Hundred Views of New Tokyo: 新東京百景). He contributed as well to various dôjin zasshi (coterie magazines: 同人雑誌), including all eight issues of Han ("Print": 版) in 1928-1929, and the first two of three issues of Kitsutsuki ("Woodpecker": きつつき) in 1930.
Azechi recalled his initial encounter with the Ichimokukai, saying: "In those days, anyone submitting prints for the exhibition took them to Kôshirô Onchi’s home, for Onchi was the guiding spirit of the association. I went there, and the man who answered the door was Gen Yamaguchi (山口源 1896-1976). That was when he was servng a sort of discipleship to Onchi and helping as handyman during the exhibitions. So the first print artist I met was Hiratsuka, the second Yamaguchi, and the third, Onchi. All became my friends." Azechi also said, "I'm grateful to Hiratsuka for his initial encouragement and his steady support all through the years. Maybe without him I wouldn't be an artist today. As for my work, the greatest influence was Onchi, and my simplified style today owes most to him."
Azechi gained some renown in Japan as an essayist on mountaineering. An accomplished climber, he led a vigorous outdoor lifestyle well into his nineties. In 1963 he wrote and designed the book Japanese Woodblock Prints: Their Techniques and Appreciation for the publisher Toto Shuppan Co., in Tokyo (English edition by Tuttle in Vermont). Today, the volume remains a collectible.
In 2003, Azechi's legacy was put on full view when the Azechi Umetarô Kinen Bijutsukan (Azechi Umetarô Memorial Museum: 畦地梅太郎記念美術館) was established in the artist's home town of Uwajima City, Ehime Prefecture. The Azechi gallery houses about 400 of the artist's works, including prints, paintings, and drawings. It also features a reconstruction of his studio, along with his tools and printing blocks. The museum offers about four exhibitions each year.
Azechi's prints can be found in many private and various public collections, including the Achenbach Foundation, Museum of Fine Arts, San Francisco; Art Institute of Chicago; British Museum, London; Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, PA; Cincinnati Art Museum; Machida City Museum of Graphic Art, Tokyo; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; and National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo.
- Azechi Umetarô: Japanese Woodblock Prints: Their Techniques and Appreciation. Tokyo and Rutland, VT: Toto Shuppan Co., 1963.
- Fuchû Art Museum (府中市美術館): Ki hanga no nukumori Kobayashi Kiyochika kara Munakata Shikô made (The warmth of woodblock prints: From Kobayashi Kiyochika to Munakata Shikô: 木版画のぬくもり小林消親から棟方志功まで). 2005, p. 92, no. 133.
- Jenkins, D.: Images of a Changing World: Japanese Prints of the Twentieth Century. Portland Art Museum, 1983, pp. 104-105, nos. 84-85.
- Merritt, Helen: Modern Japanese Woodblock Prints: The Early Years. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1990, pp. 234-35.
- Smith, L.: The Japanese Prints since 1900: Old Dreams and New Visions. London: British Museum, 1983, pp. 104, 118.
- Smith, L.: Modern Japanese Prints 1912-1989. British Museum, 1994, p. 22, and plates 87-90.
- Statler, Oliver: Modern Japanese Prints: An Art Reborn. Rutland & Tokyo: Tuttle, 1956, pp. 136-141 and 199, nos. 74-76.
- Uhlenbeck, C., Reigle-Newland, A., de Vries, M.: Waves of renewal: modern Japanese prints, 1900 to 1960. Leiden: Hotei Publishing, 2016, pp. 285-290, nos. 248-260.
The text provided here is based in large part on John Fiorillo's web page: