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Utamaro print showing


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KUSAKA Kenji (日下賢二)


Kusaka Kenji (日下賢二) was born in Tsuyama in Okayama prefecture in 1936. Starting in 1950, he learned the basics of printmaking from Nagare Koji (born 1905), a member of the Nihon Hanga-in (Japanese Print Institute), who taught in Okayama. At that time, Kusaka designed landscapes and still lifes, as well as occasional portraits and scenes of farm life (where he grew up). At the age of sixteen, he moved to Tokyo, where he became fascinated with bamboo, designing prints on that theme in a fairly realistic but expressionist manner (see second image below). Eventually, he adapted bamboo forms into more abstracted vertical and horizontal stripes, which occasionally morphed into zippers (see first image below). By around 1967, he produced abstractions with diagonal stripes and very bright colors, including chrome yellows, vermilions, and primary hues. In the 1970s, his work took a turn toward even bolder geometrical arrangements, with sharply pointed forms and ovals becoming an essential part of his graphic vocabulary. Kusaka continued working in this manner well into the early 2000s.

Kusaka Kenji sakuhin no 2
Kusaka Kenji: Sakuhin No.2 (Work No. 2: 作品 no. 2), 1976
Woodcut; edition 44/120; image: 508 x 406 mm; paper: 625 x 490 mm

Kusaka Kenji bambooIn many works, Kusaka's used oil paints, which were extracted of their oil by pouring them on newspaper for at least five hours and then recomposing the pigments with poppy oil and turpentine. The result was a fairly fluid colorant that could be applied with a flat brush on the carved woodblocks without leaving an oil stain on the torinoko-gami (鳥の子紙) printing paper. Kusaka also, on occasion, applied colors with a tanpo (rounded printing tool wrapped with cloth: たんぽ) of his own devising.

As mentioned earlier, Kusaka took his inspiration from bamboo forms. Earlier works included designs such as the one shown on the right, a large-format print from 1959 measuring 542 x 347 mm. From these exploratorry efforts, Kusaka eventually developed an abstract style of representation, as shown in the example above (Sakuhin No.2 ). Here, he arranged his stylized bamboo forms in a vertical array along with a single zipper placed just left of center. Strong reds and blues do not yet dominate the composition, as they would in later years. It is a large work (image size 508 x 406 mm) and, although difficult to see in this photo image, it possesses a rich surface quality due in part to the reconstituted oil pigments.

Kusaka received the Newcomer’s Award, Kokugakai (National Picture Association: 国画会), 1961; the Yamamoto Kanae Award, Nihon Hanga Kyôkai (Japan Print Association:日本版画協会), 1963; and the Kanagawa Prefectural Museum of Modern Art award, 1964. He exhibited woodblocks in international print biennales, including Ljublanja, Sao Paulo, Florence, and Tokyo (winning the National Museum of Modern Art Award at the 5th Tokyo International Biennale in 1966: see Kawakita, ref. below for this work).

Prints by Kusaka Kenji can be found in important public institutions, including the Art Gallery of New South Wales; British Museum, London; Cleveland Museum of Art; Colorado State Museum of Modern Art, Denver; Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; Honolulu Museum of Art; Kanagawa Prefectural Museum; Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Museum of Modern Art, New York; National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo; Portland Art Museum; and Tokyo Metropolitan Museum. © 2020 by John Fiorillo


  • Gendai hanga (Contemporary Japanese Prints: Artists, Technique and Collection), ed. Kodansha, Tokyo, 1979, p. 56.
  • Hasegawa, Kimiyuki (ed.): Gendai hanga zukan (Illustrated book of contemporary prints: 現代版画図鑑). Tokyo: Keisuisha, 1977, pp. 86-87.
  • Kawakita, Michiaki: Contemporary Japanese Prints. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1967, pp. 90-91, 181, and color plate 46.
  • Kusaka Kenji: Mokuhanga sakuhin shû (Kusaka Kenji: Collected works of woodblock prints: 日下賢二木版画作品集), 1983.
  • Merritt, Helen, and Yamada, Nanako: Guide to Modern Japanese Woodblock Prints 1900-1975. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1992, p. 83.
  • Petit, Gaston, 44 Modern Japanese Print Artists (vol. I). Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1973, pp. 202-203.
  • Smith, Lawrence, Modern Japanese Prints 1912-1989: Woodblocks and Stencils. London, British Museum Press, 1994, pp. 29 and 65, no. 129.
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