Japanese Version

The hands of the artist: KIYOSHI SAITO

The hands of the artist: KIYOSHI SAITO

By Judith Callander

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[Originally published in Steve Beimel’s publication, The Kyoto Diary, in the late 1990’s.]

The Reynolds Gallery of Westmont College in Santa Barbara staged an exhibit this winter of the works of one of Japan's most revered artists, Kiyoshi Saito. The Gallery obviously enjoyed the challenge to create a charming Japonesque setting with lanterns and ikebana by Heartie Ann Look which by themselves were worth the trip to the gallery and demonstrated that the appeal of traditional Japan survives in an age of technology and trade wars.


Aizu, Saito's native town, was one of his favorite subjects, especially in winter. In Japan's snow country the weight and depth of the snow is amazing and the effects of the long and severe winter are conveyed with dramatic and bold designs. This is no Currier and Ives quaintness. The early impressions of the monochrome landscape, the black and white contrasts affected Saito and other print artists from the severe mountain climate. Saito lets us know that his Aizu is moving into modem times. One landscape includes a utility pole, and the peasants in the snowy landscape are not in straw boots but on skis.



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Most of the works on exhibit were from the collection of Ted, and Dorcas Hatlen who began collecting Saito prints during the Occupation in the late 1940's and '5O's. Saito's stage-set landscapes, his posterish portraits must have especially attracted Ted Hatlen who was to begin a career in the theater arts. Hatlen was one of many Westerners who snapped up these prints during the Post-War period. Oliver Statler and James Michener became collectors and connoisseurs, wrote books on- this only-in-Japan art form which was called sosaku hanga or "creative print."


The creative print artists separated themselves from traditional printmaking by designing the print and themselves executing each step of the print process. And, more importantly, their influences were European. Saito's realism, he says originated in the Post-Impressionists especially Gauguin. Others were committed to abstract images. Saito and many of  his colleagues were from remote provincial villages, received a minimal art education, frequently from a correspondence School which specialized in Western style painting. Many began as oil painters, switched to prints for survival at first and then, recognizing the expressive potential of the woodblock print, never abandoned the art form. The artist's signature and the print titles were riot in Japanese characters but in the Latin alphabet, and this is the first clue that, despite the traditional Japanese places and faces they' identified themselves as Western style artists.


Saito's themes at first were heavily outlined landscapes but later focused on more intimate settings. "Solitude" is a classic. Saito's simple impressions helped make sense of the exotic Japan that the foreigner encountered. A simple outline of a stone lantern, pebbled paths pulling the viewer into an unknown interior were symbols of peace cat-the American soldier or sojourner welcomed after so much warfare.


Saito's portraits depart from the snowy silence and solitude. One, "Milk" done just after the War, reveals a period of pain for the Japanese, even for the known objectors to the military government, and Saito was one of these. The artists who did not collaborate with the government, refused to engage in propaganda” art, were isolated and impoverished yet felt deeply the pain of defeat, the humiliation of the tragic ending to the country gone wrong. Despair is reflected in the face of the girl, holding her glass of what was probably hard to come by nourishment "Red Haired Girl" from much later, with her oriental features surrounded by died red hair, has recovered, is ready for whatever the West has to offer.


The grains of his print block form swirling patterns mixed with the flat color planes reflect the-hands of the artists and the wood itself, so different from the traditional woodblock, ukiyo-e. "I despise ukiyo-e,'' he insisted, with its finicky, overworked format.


In contemporary Japan the second and third generation of print makers_employ other techniques the lithograph, etching,_mezzotint and many combine everything rom the lowly mimeograph and Xerox machines  in exotic and elaborate printing methods. And many employ assistants or professional print shops to execute the tedious processes. Yet the handful of survivors of the first generation, many still, working, are still committed to the woodblock print which allows much greater involvement in the print. Reika Iwami is one. A frail lady, she lives outside Tokyo in a traditional Japanese house with a tiny studio. I visited her a few years ago with my son who was impressed with her art but was dismayed that she would not hire a studio assistant to pull the prints which are very difficult, as she employs different materials to create the lyrical images of the natural world, mostly in abstract form. He heard but did not understand her explanation. Ki, the word for energy and spirit, enters her arm and provides strength that goes beyond her physical limitations. Takahashi Rikio, another original member of the movement, lives in a modest apartment in the trendy Omote-Sando region of Tokyo.  His large abstractions of Kyoto gardens in a pale palette put him in the 1940's as a member of the avantegarde. Compared with the complex creations of today, his woodblock prints are conservative. His artistic vocabulary soothes -rather than shocks. Takahashi too rejects the idea that print makers would hire others to do any of the work, no matter how difficult. "A print must come from the hand of the artist," he says.


Although many of his colleagues became enthusiastic believers in abstract art, Saito never abandoned his love of realism. Saito, the mood maker, is now eighty eight years old and is still making prints. Soon these artists and their creative print making movement will be gone.


Judith Callander is a long-time far-east resident, former art columnist for The Japan Times, and feature writer for two Hong Kong magazines.