Portrait by Onchi Kôshirô
Watercolor on silk (271 x 240 mm)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Kawakami Sumio (川上澄生) was born in Yokohama and, from the age of three, raised in Tokyo. He learned drawing from Shôdai Tameshige (1863-1951) at the Aoyama Junior High School (Aoyama Gakuin Chûtôbu). Kawakami made his first print in 1912 by adapting a woodblock-printed frontispiece drawn by the playwright Mokutarô Kinoshita (木下杢太郎 1885-1945) for an edition of his play written that same year called "Izumiya Dyeing Shop" (Izumiya somemono-ten: 和泉屋染物店). To make his print — a woman with a traditional chignon hair-style who peers out from underneath a Western umbrella — Kawakami used a sharpened umbrella stay to carve the block. Moreover, he printed the inked block with a makeshift rubbing tool — an ashtray wrapped in a handkerchief. Depsite the limitations of such amateur devices, Kawakami produced an image of what would prove to be his lifelong theme — the curious and oftentimes entertaining combination of people and objects from the East and West within a single image.
Kawakami began submitting woodcuts to small journals after 1913, such as "Middle School World" (Chûgaku Sekai: 中学世界). The death of his mother Koshige (小繁) in 1915 was a terrible blow that weighed on Kawakami for years and likely motivated him in 1917 to move from Yokohama to Victoria, Canada in search of new experiences. He remained in North America for a year while supporting himself doing odd jobs that included employment at a salmon cannery in Alaska and house painting in Seattle. He returned with his sketchbooks to Japan in 1918 after he learned that his younger brother Washirô (和四郎) was dying. Once back in Japan, he worked for a while in an export firm as well as for a signboard painting company. Then, in 1921, he found employment teaching English at Tochigi Prefectural Utsunomiya Junior High School (Utsunomiya Chûgakkô: 宇都宮中学校), now Utsunomiya High School (Utsunomiya Gakkô: 宇都宮学校) in the northern Kantô region. It was around this time that he began devoting himself to printmaking in his spare hours. A representative work, "Early Summer Wind" (Shoka no kaze: 初夏の風), is said to have inspired the young Munakata Shikô (棟方志功 1903-1975), who was in Tokyo studying oil painting, to take up printmaking. By the 1930s Kawakami was serving as an advisor and contributor to small amateur art magazines produced along with his students in Tochigi Prefecture, such as "Village Prints" (Mura no hanga: 村の版画) and "Blade" (Katana: 刀).
In 1927, Kawakami made his first "self-drawn, self-carved, self-printed" (jiga-jikoku-jizuri: 自画自刻自摺) book in the "creative-print" (sôsaku hanga; 創作版画) manner, a collection of his poetry and woodcuts titled "Bluebeard" (Aohige: 青髯). More than 30 other limited-edition books with woodcuts followed, many of them self-printed. In fact, Kawakami claimed that handmade books were of greater interest to him than single-sheet prints. In the early years, he developed a personal movable-type method for printing the texts by carving around 800 ideographs on individual small blocks of cherry wood (sakura: 桜 or 櫻), arranging the blocks within wood frames, and printing them with a traditional round rubbing pad (baren: 馬楝), just as he would do with his woodcut images.
Kawakami was mostly a self-taught artist. Before the early 1930s, he made his woodcuts in the usual manner, carving multiple blocks for the outlines and colors. He then adopted a method of carving only the keyblock while brushing on colors by hand. The collector and author Oliver Statler (Modern Japanese Prints: An Art Reborn, 1956) quoted Kawakami as saying, "I was never much in the swim of things as far as prints were concerned. Since I didn't live in Tokyo I never knew many of the print artists and never was much influenced by them. I've just gone my own way, doing what interested me, and hoping it would interest somebody else. If it has, I'm happy."
During the Second World War, Kawakami, who detested the militarism of Japan, continued to produce prints. After he lost his teaching job in 1942 when the Ministry of Education banned the teaching of English, he relied on an small income from the sale of his books, which he produced in quick succession. Former students also helped out financially, but he was reduced to burning his carved blocks for firewood. Kawakami was able to relocate in March 1945 to his wife Chiyo's (千代) family home in Hokkaidô (北海道), shortly before the Allied bombings began on April 18. At that time. Hokkaidô was an evacuation area in Japan's northernmost prefecture. After the war, in 1949, he managed to resume teaching English when he became a lecturer at Utsunomiya Girls' High School. Once again, in 1951, Kawakami gathered together student and teacher volunteers to start an art magazine, this time calling it "Dull Blade" (Dontô: 鈍刀).
After the war, Kawakami increased his focus on the customs and appearance of foreigners, called Nanban (literally, "Southern Barbarians: 南蛮), a term derived from China referring to the people of Southeast Asia. However, in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Japan, it came to mean anything "foreign." A distinction was sometimes made to refer specifically to the Dutch as "red-hair persons" (kômôjin: 紅毛人). Kawakami was fascinated by images of Nanban culture as well as Japan's "civilization and enlightenment" (bunmei kaika: 文明開化), the latter term being a slogan of the Meiji period (1868-1912) signifying and celebrating the modernization of Japan and the importation of Western ideas and technology. Kawakami's birthplace was Yokohama, a port city where trade not only in goods but also in ideas proliferated. Moreover, his father Eiichirô (英一郎) was an enthusiastic supporter of Western modernism (see is image of a Dutchman on the right). Kawakami surely had a special connection with the blending of East and West, expressed by his prolific output of Nanban images. Even Onchi Kôshirô's watercolor portrait of Kawakami (see upper left) expresses this connection by including a Western-style pocket watch and telescope in the image.
Almost always, Kawakami did not sign his prints, but rather he preferred using a variety of seals carved into the key block, reading "Sumi" (澄 see example at top right), "Sumio" (澄生), or "SK."
Prints by Kawakami Sumio can be found in many important institutional collections, including the Art Institute of Chicago; British Museum, London; Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; Chazen Museum of Art, University of Wisconsin, Madison; Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, MA; Honolulu Museum of Art; Kawakami Sumio Museum, Kanuma City; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Minneapolis Institute of Art; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto; National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo; and Portland Art Museum, Oregon. © 2021 by John Fiorillo
For more information about this artist, see John Fiorillo's Kawakami Sumio web page: