Hiroshi Yoshida: Commemorating the 70th anniversary of the death of the master of shin-hanga (modern ukiyo-e)

Hiroshi Yoshida (1876 – 1950) was one of the major shin-hanga (modern ukiyo-e: “shin” means new, and “hanga” means woodblock painting) painters who had fans worldwide, including psychologist Sigmund Freud and Princess Diana. He impressed the world by masterfully blending Western-style realism and traditional Japanese woodblock printing method, but it didn’t happen by accident. His career coincided with the bumpy transformation Japanese society and culture had to go through after Japan “opened its doors” to foreign countries in 1868 following the fallout of the strict isolationism that lasted for hundreds of years. Japanese artists in his time were forced to figure out how to reconcile Westernism that suddenly poured into the country with traditional Japanese aesthetics in order to establish artistic identity. Yoshida found his answer in traditional woodblock painting, and he did it by injecting Western-style modernism into it.

After 1868, Japanese aggressively sought to modernize/Westernize many aspects of the society, including education system and art. Yoshida’s generations were one of the first to receive fully Westernized art education, and like many colleagues, he started his career as a Western-style painter. Some of his fellow young artists were even given opportunities to study in Europe, and he saw them dominate the Japanese art scene upon their return. Yoshida didn’t win such scholarships, but he knew that his landscape paintings that excelled in capturing the subtle beauty in nature were popular among Westerners living in Japan. As he wanted to try his chance abroad badly, he managed to collect barely enough money for a one-way ticket and he went to the US when he was 23 years old. He held a couple of exhibitions in Detroit and Boston, which were well received. After the initial success, he spent many of the subsequent years travelling, holding exhibitions and winning awards in various competitions.

During his days abroad, he saw that ukiyo-e was becoming increasingly popular, and even low-quality products were traded at high prices. As he saw the opportunity, he started woodblock painting upon his return to Japan. It was a strategic pivot for him, who was already approaching 50 years old. He wasted no time and quickly mastered woodblock techniques, and became a one-of-a-kind modern ukiyo-e artist who had solid Western painting foundation.

Sunrise, Ten Views of Fuji  1926
Woodcut, paper 53.3×71.2cm

Sunrise Rite, Ten Views of Fuji  1928
Woodcut, paper 25.0×37.5cm

Traditional ukiyo-e often ignored perspectives and boldly altered composition in order amplify artistic effects. But Yoshida’s shin-hanga was different: not only did he keep European realism-like style that had unaltered perspectives, he also successfully captured subtle gradations of light and shadow. Woodblock printing in Japan was traditionally completed through a collaboration of a specialized painter, a wood carver and a printer, so Yoshida had to master wood carving and printing, not just painting, so that he could tell exactly what he wanted from his carvers and printers to achieve the delicate nuances of his products.

Morning on Tsurugisan, Twelve Scenes in the Japan Alps 1926
Woodcut, paper 37.0×24.8cm

Glittering Sea, The Inland Sea Series 1926
Woodcut, paper 37.2×24.7cm

You can see how masterful he was to handle light/shadow handling in the “Sailing Boats” series, which had morning, forenoon, afternoon, mist, evening and night versions. He used the same woodblock for all of them, and expressed how the sunlight changed the scenes as time went by, by simply changing the colors to print them. It took an extra-large woodblock and more than 30 printings to achieve subtle color gradations, but Yoshida was determined to pursue his own style.

Sailing Boats-Morning, The Inland Sea Series 1926
Woodcut, paper 50.8×35.9cm

Sailing Boats-Afternoon, The Inland Sea Series 1926 Woodcut, paper 50.8×36.1cm

Sailing Boats-Mist, The Inland Sea Series 1926 Woodcut, paper 50.9×36.0cm

Sailing Boats-Evening, The Inland Sea Series 1926
Woodcut, paper 50.5×36.0cm

Sailing Boats-Night, The Inland Sea Series 1926
Woodcut, paper 50.8×36.1cm

Yoshida also painted Japanese places like ukiyo-e did, but he excelled in capturing subtle dimness. 

Ueno Park  1938
Woodcut, paper 37.6×24.8cm

Kagurazaka Street after a Night Rain, Twelve Scenes of Tokyo  1929
Woodcut, paper 37.5×24.5cm

Farmhouse  1946
Woodcut, paper 24.5×37.3cm

Another novel thing Yoshida did: transfer what he saw abroad on woodblock printing: from the Yosemite National Park in California to Taj Mahal in India, he painted many places using his unique, subtle style.

El Capitan, The United States Series 1925
Woodcut, paper 37.4×25.0cm

Fatehpur Sikri, India and Southeast Asia  1931
Woodcut, paper 37.9×24.9cm