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Biography: SASAJIMA Kihei (笹島喜平)

photo of Obata Chiura
Sasajima Kihei, self-portrait, 1955

 

Sasajima Kihei signatureSasajima Kihei (笹島喜平 1906-1993), 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 (creative prints: 創作版画) 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. Sasajima first exhibited at the Kokuga-kai (National Picture Association: 国画会) exhibition in 1940. After giving up a teaching job in 1945, he devoted himself entirely to prints. As early as 1948, Sasajima had become well known in the art world and was commissioned by the Mitsukoshi Theater (Mitsukoshi Gekijô, 三越劇場) to create a series of kabuki prints for their productions. The Mitsukoshi Gekijô is a performance venue inside the Mitsukoshi Department Store in Nihonbashi, Tokyo and is said to be the world's first department-store theater.

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 ten years (1957-66). In the U.S., he had a two-man show (with Okiie Hashimoto (橋本興家 1889-1993) in Washington D.C. in 1957. Beginning around 1962, Sasajima focused on religious themes, including subjects with the "sacred mountain" Mt. Fuji, and with the Buddhist deity Fudô Myôô (不動明王); see image at lower right. He also produced landscapes of Nara.

Sasajima Kihei 1992 fudo myooEarly in his career, Sasajima was interviewed by the collector and author Oliver Statler (1915-2002). Sasajima told him that Munakata was his teacher: "Munakata is a genius ... He awes me," even though 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."

Having been influenced and guided by two leading sôsaku hanga artists (Hiratsuka and Munakata), Sasajima tried to communicate his concern over a broader challenge to realizing his personal style. He told Statler in 1955: "My problem now is to stand on my own. I want to try to find a Japanese expression for the Japanese. It's lamentable that everybody is traveling the same path. You can't tell whether much of the work is done by a Japanese or a Westerner."

Statler thought that Sasajima used a longer line than Hiratsuka's that was closer to the brush stroke, which Sasajima believed was influenced by several sources, including Munakata, Japanese 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), as well as the painters and calligraphers Ike no Taiga (池大雅 1723–1776), and Tomioka Tessai (富岡鉄斎 1837-1924)

After an illness in 1959 made it difficult for him to rub pigments into paper with a baren, Sasajima developed a method of forcing paper into deeply cut blocks with a printing 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.

The artist's book of essays on art, Sasajima Kihei gabunshû, Ichijin (笹島喜平画文集・一塵), was published by the Tokyo publisher Bijutsu Shuppansha in 1967. He has been honored with a permanent exhibition of his works in the Mashiko Museum of Ceramic Art in the Haga District, Tochigi Prefecture (his home town), which features the Sasajima Kihei Hall. Once or twice a year, the museum rotates the Sasajima collection on view, affording return visitors opportunities to see many of the nearly 300 prints and 200 sketches by the artist that are cared for by the curators. The Mashiko museum also houses an important collection of ceramics by Sasajima's dear friend, the eminent Hamada Shôji, as well as works by many other leading modern potters.

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.