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Utamaro print showing


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ITÔ Shinsui (伊東深水)


Shinsui Before MirrorItô Shinsui (伊東深水) studied with the ukiyo-e style painter and printmaker Kaburagi Kiyokata (1878-1973), himself a pupil of the last important ukiyo-e master, Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-92). Shinsui's training was therefore directly tied to the legacy of traditional ukiyo-e, especially in the portrayal of women (Kitagawa Utamaro's masterpieces certainly come to mind). Shinsui modified the traditional imagery to suit the Japanese taste of his time (and often to please foreign buyers).

During his lifetime Shinsui's impressive portraits earned him a preeminent position as a designer of bijinga ("pictures of beautiful women") in the shin hanga ("new prints") manner, and he is held in equally high esteem today. Although known primarily for his bijinga, Shinsui also created some fine landscape designs. In recognition of his body of work, Shinsui received several important honors during his lifetime, including in 1952 the designation by the Bunkazai Hôgô Iinkai ("Commission for the Protection of Cultural Properties") that he was a bearer of mukei bunkazai ("intangible cultural properties," equivalent to today's Ningen kokuhô or "Living National Treasure"). In 1970 Shinsui received the Order of the Rising Sun.

In addition to his Japanese-style paintings (some of these 'nihonga' works were the basis for his prints) and book illustrations (such as kuchi-e or "mouth pictures," front pieces for books and novels), Shinsui developed a fruitful collaboration with several hanga publishers, especially with the foremost shin hanga publisher Watanabe Shôzaburô, which lasted about 45 years and produced more than 100 print designs. It began in 1916 with one of the seminal works of the shin hanga movement, a print of a young beauty dressing her hair before an unseen mirror (see the illustration above).

One story has it that Watanabe saw Shinsui's original painting called Taikyô ("Before the Mirror": 対鏡) at an academy exhibition sponsored by Shinsui's teacher, Kiyokata, and then arranged an introduction to Kiyokata, obtained his consent to approach his young student, and finally engaged Shinsui in the exciting new printmaking project. The inscription at the upper left of the print includes the word shihitsu ("drawn as an experiment"), an indication of its ground-breaking nature. The essential elements for a picture of a shin hanga beauty are evident in the design and its execution: a sensual theme, an intimate viewpoint, the display of fashion, technical mastery in woodblock cutting and printing, and vibrant color. The dominant hue, red, is deep and rich in tone, establishing a striking contrast between the woman's skin and jet black hair. The long association in traditional ukiyo-e of the color red with eroticism would not have been lost on Taishô-period aficionados of the Japanese woodblock print. The swirling pattern in the background from the pressure of the baren (the printer's tool for rubbing pigments onto paper) introduced an expressive texture to the scene, creating a modern look with the unconventional application of the gray pigment. This striking and experimental print must have sent shockwaves through the community of printmakers when it first appeared.

The design below, called Mayuzumi ("Eyebrow pencil": 眉墨), is in the horizontal format, an uncommon one for portraits. As with the print above, it exhibits another special use of the color red. Here it covers even more of the print surface and imbues the design with a luxurious and elegant aspect. Eroticism once again becomes part of the message, the result of bare skin and deep red color. The woman painting her eyebrows is an unidentified actress shown backstage as she prepares for her role. The edition was issued by Watanabe in January 1928, when it made an immediate impression upon collectors and critics and quickly sold out.

Shinsui makeup
Itô Shinsui: Mayuzumi ("Eyebrow pencil": 眉墨), woodcut (280 × 400 mm)
Publisher: Watanabe Shôzaburô, January 1928

Shinsui used the horizontal format effectively by positioning the actress securely on the right half of the sheet while having her lean forward toward the dressing mirror at the lower left. The composition is anchored by the actress's form, which establishes a stable pyramid. There is, as a counterbalance to the weight of her body, the nicely observed hand that holds the makeup brush in a refined, feminine manner, its movement arrested in an almost photographic gesture. Views of actors off stage — in their dressing rooms, out on the town, or in the countryside — were popular subjects in traditional ukiyo-e. In this design, Shinsui and Watanabe have continued in that tradition with a beautiful composition and an expertly executed print in response to the public's continued fascination with the private moments of stage personalities. ©2020 by John Fiorillo


  • Brown, Kendall and Goodall-Cristante, H.: Shin-Hanga: New Prints in Modern Japan.Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1996, pp. 61-63.
  • Catalogue of Collections [Modern Prints]: The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo (Tokyo kokuritsu kindai bijutsukan shozô-hin mokuroku, 東京国立近代美術館所蔵品目録). 1993, pp. 31-38, nos. 215-289.
  • Jenkins, Donald: Images of a Changing World: Japanese Prints of the Twentieth Century. Portland Art Museum, 1983, pp. 36-39.
  • Merritt, Helen: Modern Japanese Woodblock Prints: The Early Years. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press 1990, pp. 47-54.
  • Smith, Lawrence: The Japanese Print Since 1900: Old Dreams and New Visions. London: British Museum, 1983, pp. 62-68.
  • Stephens, Aamy (Ed.): The New Wave: Twentieth-century Japanese Prints from the Robert O. Mueller Collection. London & Leiden: Bamboo Publishing and Hotei-Japanese Prints, 1993, pp. 180-194.
  • Watanabe, Tadasu (supervisor), edited by Kô̄no Minoru, Iino Masahito, and Hirasawa Kanzô̄: Itô̄ Shinsui zen mokuhanga (Itô Shinsui: All the Woodblock Prints, 伊東深水全木版画), Tokyo: 1994. (Catalog of exhibition organized by Machida City Museum of Graphic Arts, co-organized by Yamanishi Prefectural Museum of Art and The Folk Museum of Ōta Borough, held at Machida City Museum of Graphic Arts, June 28-July 26, 1992.)
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