Yoshida Masaji (吉田政次) was one of the most prominent pupils of Kôshirô Onchi. The inspirational Onchi encouraged his students to experiment with woodblock carving, printing, and compositional techniques, and Masaji was no exception. He worked through several styles of printmaking, including an early print series of bold black and white geometrical prints titled "Fountain of Earth."
As Masaji continued to explore new approaches in abstract design, he turned toward softer shapes in subdued colors. He developed a method of cutting his color blocks from a single board and then fitting them back together within a framelike a jigsaw puzzle that permitted raising each piece separately when it was needed to print a specific color area. Masaji did not use a registration method (kentô); instead, he tacked the paper to the edge of the frame. He used heavily dampened, unsized paper to allow the colors to spread, producing a blotting effect, while also imparting soft edges to the shapes. He also printed muted shades of gray over his principal colors to add further depth and complexity to his designs.
The illustration on the right is titled Yûgen No. 1, dated 1959, numbered 24/30, and signed in pencil in the lower margin. The artist's red Masaji seal is at the lower right of the image. The paper size is double ôban (511 x 365 mm). The composition is a representative example of his early efforts to explore the effects of surface texture, soft shapes, and restrained color that seemed to reveal an unsettled, brooding spirit, setting his work apart from many other sosaku hanga artists.
The term yûgen in the print title is a difficult-to-translate concept, but it suggests something like "hidden mystery." Many critics have commented on the atmosphere of disquiet and suffering that seems to lie beneath the surface of Masaji's prints. Masaji once said that he was seeking "serenity" in his work. He also said that, "My long career ... could be divided chiefly into three phases. The first phase was a period of optimism.... Then in my second stage, my work became more withdrawn.... I was very much affected by the death of our only son. My lines tended to become nervous, sensitive, oblique.... My colors were dark — a shade of brown mixed with light red, Indian-red, and white — and they represented the colors of sorrow and destruction. Ironically, my work began to gain acclaim both at home and abroad. This style, which served as a safe island where I could hide my wounds, persisted until recently [mid 1960s]. Now I feel that I should come out of this self-imposed seclusion. I want to bring out a sense of space, which is difficult in woodblock prints."*
Whatever the interpretation, it is fairly certain that his interest lay in exploring simple forms that evoked a sense of deeper appreciation for what was profound in human existence. The shapes in his compositions and the manner in which they are arranged are often vaguely reminiscent of the earth and gardens. Not only his designs but his print titles suggest this ("Fountain
of Earth," "Peace-Evening," "Ancient No. 8," Space no. 13," "Earth No. 3"). Masaji's restrained, sophisticated color palette has been praised by some who consider him to be one of the finest colorists of the sosaku hanga school.
In the first design, at the top right, the overprinting of dilute pale gray creates a shifting sense of depth that contributes to a feeling of mystery. The placement of the large, ominous, dark gray shape also evokes a sense of unsettled movement. Diagonal black lines in the upper part of the composition became a principal design motif in Masaji's later, more monumental prints. One of his larger works, shown immediately above, is titled 空向 No. 44 (Direction in Space No. 44). It measures 721 x 665 mm and is dated 1965. In this print greater linearity and sharper edges define the main forms. ©2015 by John Fiorillo
- Kung, David: The contemporary artist in Japan. Honolulu: East-West Center Press, 1966, p. 158.*
- Michener, James: The Modern Japanese Print: An Appreciation. Rutland & Tokyo: Tuttle, 1968, pp. 48-50.
- Smith, Lawrence: Modern Japanese Prints 1912-1989. London: British Museum Press, 1994, pp. 16, 38, & 61; plates 103-106.
- Statler, Oliver: Modern Japanese Prints: An Art Reborn. Rutland & Tokyo: Tuttle, 1956, pp. 148-152; plates 84-85.