|Sekino print from 1968
Portrait of Shikô Munakata
Sekino Jun'ichirô (関野準一郎 1914-1988), a leading artist in the sôsaku hanga ("Creative prints": 創作版画) movement, produced some of the finest portraits and figure studies in twentieth-century Japanese art. A prolific and masterful printmaker excelling in many techniques, he worked with intaglio media (etching, drypoint, aquatint, mezzotint, engraving), planar media (lithography), carved media (woodcuts, wood engravings), and mixed media (collagraph, found objects, textile printing). Quite often, he made preparatory sketches in graphite, watercolors, or oils. He also produced finished watercolors and oil paintings.
Interested in both traditional and modern art, Sekino admired ukiyo-e artists such as Tôshûsai Sharaku (東洲齋写楽 active c. 1794-95), and benefited from his associations with the modernists Munakata Shikô (棟方志功 see image at left) and Onchi Kôshirô (恩地孝四郎 see 1963 photo at right showing Sekino with his portrait of Onchi). Sekino also praised the work of European artists such as Rembrandt, Edvard Munch, Raoul Dufy, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Anders Zorn, and Käthe Kollwitz. From Onchi, Sekino learned an expressive method of printing through layering and texturing of pigments, and soft and irregular edges of forms (using a curved chisel). For his very large format works, Sekino took advantage of plywood faced with solid Japanese woods whose augmented scale had liberated sôsaku hanga printmakers from the compositional constraints of traditionally smaller planks of solid cherry wood (sakura) used in ukiyo-e printmaking.
It appears that Sekino's first published works appeared in 1931 in Chôkokutô (Carving Knife: 雕刻刀) published by the Sôsaku Hanga Kenkyûkai (Creative Print Research Group: 創作版画研究会) under the leadership of Satô Yonejirô in Aomori (青森). There were 17 issues from June 1931 to December 1932, each limited to 30 copies. It was soon revived from January 1933 to June 1934 (13 issues) and again from October 1938 to June 1939 (8 issues) but renamed as Mutsu goma ("Aomori Horse"). Sekino contributed designs for volumes 9-12 and 14-16.
Early on, Sekino quickly mastered the craft of intaglio printmaking and produced excellent copperplate works by the mid-1930s. Years later, Sekino would operate his own etching press in the kitchen of his home, and by 1951, he became head of a "copper-plate research group," through which both amateurs and seasoned printmakers had access to his press. Two years after, the loosely knit group morphed into the more official-sounding Japanese Copper-plate Print Association (Nihon Dôbanga Kyôkai: 日本銅版画協会). Among the notable participants were Hamada Chimei (浜田知明 1917-2018), Hamaguchi Yôzô (浜口陽三 1909-2000), Kobayashi Donge (小林ドンゲ born 1926), and Komai Tetsurô (駒井哲郎 1920-1976).
The most familiar of Sekino’s landscape series is his interpretive updating of a popular Edo-period theme, the "Fifty-three stations of the Tôkaidô" (Tôkaidô gojûsan no tsugi: 東海道五十三次). Sekino carved the blocks from 1960 to 1974 and printed the test proofs for large, unnumbered editions. The paper (watermarked "Jun Sekino") was printed on the smooth side, which faces the drying board during manufacture. It was an Echizen washi called "kizuki hôsho" made by Iwano Ichibei VIII (1901–1976), designated a "Living national treasure" (Ningen kokuhô) in 1968 by Japan's Agency for Cultural Affairs. Printing was divided among Kobayashi Sôkichi, Yoneda Minoru, and Iwase Kôichi. Sekino signed and sealed all impressions meeting his approval. Upon his completing the series in 1974, all 55 designs (the starting and ending destination, Nihonbashi and Kyoto, are also included in the series) were reissued for exhibitions. In 1975, Sekino received Japan's Ministry of Education Award, acknowledging his "maturity in using every possible technique in woodblock printing, Japanese traditional art, and the recreation of the old fifty-three stations of the Tôkaidô highway in the light of the present day."
Sekino was also a prolific illustrator of books, for which he produced many hundreds if not thousands of images. Some of his finest books were self-printed and privately issued. Counted among the best of these for its elegant production quality and imaginative pictorial choices was his 1949 Venus no tanjô, Dôbanga-shû (Birth of Venus, Collected copper prints: ヴイナスの誕生 銅版画集). Printed in an edition of 100, the first 30 numbered books were self-printed, while the remaining copies (nos. 31-100) were studio printed. Each of the 10 intaglio prints is accompanied by a elaborately laid-out page of information, each arranged against a fanciful linear design.
Sekino's signatures help to identify self-printed editions, particularly when the letter "J" in Jun'ichirô is written without the looping curves of later signatures. When demand rose for these large portraits, Sekino did not want to spend his time printing more editions. So he employed studio artisans to do the printing, under his general supervision (he signed and sealed these impressions, so his "approval" was explicit). To a large degree, the later studio printings are less interesting compared with Sekino's own printings because they show less variety or experimentation from impression to impression. Moreover, the later papers were more absorbent than the earlier torinoko papers, tending to take the pigments in a similar manner across the entire edition. On the whole, self-printed impressions of these early large-format portraits are more complex and subtle.
Up to around 1954, it appears that Sekino printed his large portrait designs for the early editions, whose numbered sizes were: unnumbered, 1, 5, 10 or less, and 20 or less. Impressions from editions of 30 are often self-printed, but not always. Examples from editions of 50 or more and from IIme état editions were almost always printed by studio artisans. To make verifications of self-printing even more complicated, Sekino did occasionally print some impressions for later editions, for example, when he needed an impression for an exhibition, although he did so on the more modern types of papers and usually in a manner similar to that of his artisans. Furthermore, he also occasionally used a later signature style on earlier impressions when they were sold at much later dates. With experience one can assess whether an impression is self-printed by relying on an array of factors: manner of printing (expressiveness, complexity, depth), edition size, signature, type of paper, and comparisons with known self-printed impressions.
The following two montages are taken from Elias Martin, Behind Paper Walls (Floating World Gallery, 2010):
Note: The information given on this web page is adapted from John Fiorillo's summary: