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HAMAGUCHI Yôzô (浜口陽三)


hamanishiHamaguchi Yôzô (浜口陽三: 1909-2000) was born in 1909, the third son of the tenth president of the Yamasa Shoyu Corporation, a major soy sauce manufacturer. Although the Hamaguchi family has been involved in the soy-sauce production since 1645, Hamaguchi left the business to pursue sculpture at the Tokyo University of the Arts (Tokyo Geijutsu Daigaku: 東京藝術大学). In 1930, he quit the university and went to France to study oil painting, watercolor, and copper-plate engraving.

Yamaguchi is considered a master of the mezzotint in twentieth-century art. (The technique was invented by an amateur German artist named Ludwig von Siegen whose first work in the medium was completed in 1642.) The most common method is "dark to light" or "subtractive" where the entire plate is worked over with a "rocker" that will raise up burrs and create pits in the copper surface to hold the ink during printing. The design is then coaxed out from the fully pitted surface by scraping and burnishing to varying degrees across the plate, thereby determining the range of light and dark as the image takes shape. The opposite and equally challenging approach is "additive," creating the image by roughening a blank plate selectively to produce varying degrees of light and dark. In Hamaguchi's hands, the "dark to light" technique enabled him to explore subtle and complex chromatic tonalities that were elevated to a thematic level, alongside the objects or forms depicted in the compositions.

To complete a mezzotint with colors, Hamaguchi prepared different plates for each color (including black), controlling the subtle differences in tints that he wanted to work into the design. Even Hamaguchi's blacks have light within them. The velvety surface and subtle transitions of colors and tints were characteristics of Hamaguchi's oeuvre. It was painstaking work that required consummate skills.

Hamaguchi produced his first copper-plate print in 1937, a simple depiction of a cat. With the outbreak of the Pacific War in 1939, he returned to Japan. After the War, Hamaguchi's intaglio prints were admired by a growing number of Japanese connoisseurs. While still in Japan, he had his first solo show at the Formes Gallery, Tokyo in 1951.

After Hamaguchi returned to France in late 1953, along with his wife, the print artist and poet Minami Keiko (南桂子 1911-2004), taking up residence in Paris. In 1954 he was awarded "Best art piece" in the Contemporary Art Exhibition of Japan at the Modern Japanese Art Gallery for his works titled "Spanish Oil Bottle" and "Gypsy." The following year he began to design mezzotints with colors. As Hamaguchi refined his mezzotint technique, he began to develop themes that would serve him for the remainder of his career, all the while producing images of expressive nuance and chromatic complexity and depth. In particular, the richness of his blacks and enhancements with colors became his signature mode in mezzotint. Truncations of objects occur frequently, as do variant shadings within a design that are so subtle as to draw in the gaze of the observer.

The image at the top right is titled Twenty-Two Cherries X, part of the "e.e.cummings suite," comprising 20 color variants of the design Twenty-Two Cherries. Hamaguchi's suite is considered a masterpiece of mezzotint printmaking. It appears that it was the American poet Edward Estlin Cummings (1894-1962) who encouraged Hamaguchi to explore the mezzotint after mentioning that Hamaguchi's drawings would look great as prints and presenting him with a set of intaglio tools. Each color variant in the "e.e.cummings suite" was linked to one of the first twenty lines in the 1940 thirty-six-line Cummings' poem, "anyone lived in a pretty how town." The variant print shown here is connected with the tenth line, "and down they forgot as up they grew."

Hamanishi Div-0 picAside from the previously cited award at the Contemporary Art Exhibition in 1954, Hamaguchi was also honored with a National Museum of Modern Art (Tokyo) prize for his "Pitcher, Grapes and Lemon" (295 × 345 mm, ed. 50; see image at left) and "Blue Glass at the Tokyo International Print Biennale in 1957. More prestigious was a grand prix at the 4th Sao Paulo Biennale Exhibition in Brazil in 1957 for three works, "Fish and Fruits," "Sole," and "Two Slices of Watermelon." In 1958 he received the 9th Mainichi Newspaper Art Award at the International Exhibition of Drawings and Engravings at the Lugano (Switzerland) International Print Biennale in 1958. Major awards continued, with the grand prize at the 4th International Biennale of Graphic Art, Ljubljana in Yugoslavia in 1961; a prize at the 1st Kracow International Print Biennale in Poland in 1968, and in 1972 for "Bottle and Cherry" at the 4th Krakow International Print Biennale. In 1977 he was awarded the Sarajevo Fine Art Academy Prize at the International Biennale of Graphic Art, Ljubljana.

In 1981 Hamaguchi and his wife moved from Paris to San Francisco. His first retrospective exhibition in Japan was held in 1985 at the Tokyo Yurakucho Art Forum and The National Museum of Art, Osaka. That same year he became a member of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, Belgium. Then in 1986, the Japanese government awarded Hamaguchi the Order of the Rising Sun (Kyokujitsu-shô: 旭日章), Third Class, Gold Rays with Neck Ribbon, for his promotion of Japanese culture and advancements in the field of fine-art printmaking.

Hamaguchi: Bottle with lemons and red wall
Edition of 145 (652 x 476 mm); 1983-1989
Hamaguchi: Bottle with yellow lemons in darkness
Edition of 180 (652 x 476 mm); 1983-89

Among Hamaguchi's finest works from the 1980s, his small grouping of "bottle with lemons" stands out as especially elegant and refined. Aside from a monochromatic variant, the designs include "Bottle with lemons and red wall" (see above left) and "Bottle with yellow lemons in darkness" (see above right) from 1983-89. The brilliance of the yellow color used for the lemons in "red wall" introduces a highly keyed contrast with the velvety black and dark nuanced "red" (more like purple or "plum"). For the "darkness" variant, the yellow is subdued, as a more intense yellow would have disrupted the balance of the composition. The effect of truncating the upper lemon is enough to trick the brain into perceiving the middle edge of the bottle. However, cover the lemon and the bottle shape ends at the horizon line of the black expanse.

Another grouping from the 1980s is a small suite of "field" images, with variations in tonal keys for each composition (using the same design template). These include "Field of deep blue," "Gray Field," "Green field," and "Spring morning." One other version, "Red field," is shown below. Surrounded by a deep black background, rope-like bands of colors stretch across a wide but shallow pictorial space. Irregular shadows appear along the length of the form as the colors glow from out of the darkness.

Hiroshige toto meisho
Hamaguchi: Red field, edition of 35 (image 538 x 742 mm); 1985-91

Hamaguchi and his wife Minami Keiko returned to Japan in 1996. He lived long enough to see the Musée Hamaguchi Yôzô established in 1998 in Nihonbashi, Chûô-ku, Tokyo by the Hamaguchi family's Yamasa Corporation. The museum proudly states that it is "the only art museum to collect and permanently display the works of Hamaguchi Yôzô." Upon the opening of the museum, Hamaguchi said, "The completion of this small and humble space is the most wonderful reward for me as an artist. Having spent many years working with mezzotint techniques, each work carries its own set of memories and is invaluable to me. This art museum will display works from my earlier years to my more recent pieces. I hope that the younger generation studying prints will take the time to visit my collection, and I look forward to the development of a new generation of print artists."

Permanent collections of Hamaguchi's work include the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Australia; Art Institute of Chicago; British Museum, London; Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco (Achenbach); Krakow National Museum; Library of Congress, Washington, DC; Museum of Modern Art, New York; National Museum, Osaka; Philadelphia Museum; Taipei Fine Arts Museum; and University of Alberta, Canada. © 2020 by John Fiorillo


  • Hagen, Yvonne: Hamaguchi`s Color Mezzotints. Tokyo: Nantenshi Gallery, 1976
  • Hamaguchi Yôzô: Yôzô Hamaguchi. Tokyo: M. gallery, 1985
  • Hamaguchi Yôzô: Hanga sakuhin-shû (Collected prints of Hamaguchi Yôzô: 版画作品集). [English title on the cover is Yozo Hamaguchi Graphic works.] Tokyo: Nantenshi Garô (Nantenshi Gallery: 南天子画廊), 1973.
  • Jenkins, Donald: Images of a Changing World — Japanese Prints of the Twentieth Century. London: British Museum, 1985, p117, no. 98.
  • Kawakita, Michiaki: Contemporary Japanese Prints. [trans. by John Bester] Tokyo: Kodansha, 1967, pp. 56-59, 143-45, 178; nos. 29-30, 103-105.
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