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KAWAKAMI Sumio (川上澄生)

Kawakami Sumio nanbanesque
Kawakami Sumio: Nanban-buri (Nanbanesque Behavior: 南蛮ぶり)
Woodcut with hand coloring, 1955 (paper: 464 x 635 mm)
Early impression courtesy of Elias Martin (EMFA, Ltd).

Kawakami Sumio (川上澄生) was born in Yokohama and, from the age of three, raised in Tokyo. He learned drawing from Shôdai Tameshige (1863-1951) at the Aoyama Junior High School (Aoyama Gakuin Chûtôbu). Kawakami made his first print in 1912 by adapting a woodblock-printed frontispiece drawn by the playwright Mokutarô Kinoshita (木下杢太郎 1885-1945) for an edition of his play written that same year called "Izumiya Dyeing Shop" (Izumiya somemono-ten: 和泉屋染物店). To make his print — a woman with a traditional chignon hair-style who peers out from underneath a Western umbrella — Kawakami used a sharpened umbrella stay to carve the block. Moreover, he printed the inked block with a makeshift rubbing tool — an ashtray wrapped in a handkerchief. Depsite the limitations of such amateur devices, Kawakami produced an image of what would prove to be his lifelong theme — the curious and oftentimes entertaining combination of people and objects from the East and West within a single image.

Kawakami began submitting woodcuts to small journals after 1913, such as "Middle School World" (Chûgaku Sekai: 中学世界). The death of his mother Koshige (小繁) in 1915 was a terrible blow that weighed on Kawakami for years and likely motivated him in 1917 to move from Yokohama to Victoria, Canada in search of new experiences. He remained in North America for a year while supporting himself doing odd jobs that included employment at a salmon cannery in Alaska and house painting in Seattle. He returned with his sketchbooks to Japan in 1918 after he learned that his younger brother Washirô (和四郎) was dying. Once back in Japan, he worked for a while in an export firm as well as for a signboard painting company. Then, in 1921, he found employment teaching English at Tochigi Prefectural Utsunomiya Junior High School (Utsunomiya Chûgakkô: 宇都宮中学校), now Utsunomiya High School (Utsunomiya Gakkô: 宇都宮学校) in the northern Kantô region. It was around this time that he began devoting himself to printmaking in his spare hours. A representative work, "Early Summer Wind" (Shoka no kaze: 初夏の風), is said to have inspired the young Munakata Shikô, who was in Tokyo studying oil painting, to take up printmaking. By the 1930s Kawakami was serving as an advisor and contributor to small amateur art magazines produced along with his students in Tochigi Prefecture, such as "Village Prints" (Mura no hanga: 村の版画) and "Blade" (Katana: 刀).

Kawakami Sumio sloping road
Kawakami Sumio: Haru no sakaji (Sloping Road in Spring: 春ノ坂路)
Woodcut, 1921 (246 x 349 mm)

One of Kawakami's earliest mature prints was shown in the second exhibition of the "Japanese Creative Print Association" (Nihon Sôsaku Hanga Kyôkai: 日本創作版画協会) in 1920. The following year, he produced a woodcut called "Sloping Road in Spring" (Haru no sakaji: 春ノ坂路) depicting a street in Victoria, Canada (illustrated above). The dot-like patterns were made by carving opposing diagonals in a cross-hatching manner. The scalloping in the clouds and in the foreground of the road were the result of using a curved chisel to make shallow cuts and gauges. It is a simple scene, but it once again declares Kawakami's interest in foreign objects, people, and locales. Note the church in the distance and the wooden clapboard houses, as well as the wide-brimmed hat worn by the cyclist.

Kawakami Sumio photo of ascension churchIn 1927, Kawakami made his first "self-drawn, self-carved, self-printed" (jiga-jikoku-jizuri: 自画自刻自摺) book in the "creative-print" (sôsaku hanga; 創作版画) manner, a collection of his poetry and woodcuts titled "Bluebeard" (Aohige: 青髯); see cover image at left. More than 30 other limited-edition books with woodcuts followed, many of them self-printed. In fact, Kawakami claimed that handmade books were of greater interest to him than single-sheet prints. In the early years, he developed a personal movable-type method for printing the texts by carving around 800 ideographs on individual small blocks of cherry wood (sakura: 桜 or 櫻), arranging the blocks within wood frames, and printing them with a traditional round rubbing pad (baren: 馬楝), just as he would do with his woodcut images.

Kawakami was mostly a self-taught artist. Before the early 1930s, he made his woodcuts in the usual manner, carving multiple blocks for the outlines and colors. He then adopted a method of carving only the keyblock while brushing on colors by hand. Oliver Statler (see refs.) quoted Kawakami as saying, "I was never much in the swim of things as far as prints were concerned. Since I didn't live in Tokyo I never knew many of the print artists and never was much influenced by them. I've just gone my own way, doing what interested me, and hoping it would interest somebody else. If it has, I'm happy."

Kawakami Sumio photo of ascension churchAbout eight years after his brief stay in North America, Kawakami carved and printed a view of the harbor at Unalaska Island just off the mainland, an area where the Aleut (Unangan) people have lived for thousands of years. The quaint village in the lower part of the image shown below features a church with two spires, each capped with a cross. This edifice is the Holy Ascension Russian Orthodox Church built in 1896 and restored in 1996 with the aid of the World Monuments Fund (see photo on right, where the church is seen from the opposite vantage point). The structure, formerly a cathedral, has a cruciform floor plan with three altars facing east, an apse, a bell-tower that serves as the entry for the church, and two "onion domes." Kawakami made his woodcut in the traditional manner by carving a keyblock and color blocks. One notices immediately the intense blue of the textured sky and water. Despite the darker shading around the foreground perimeters of the islands in the middle distance, they nevertheless have an odd, less-than-anchored quality, appearing to float upon the sea or cloud-like in the sky. This was not the first time Kawakami depicted the church (see discussion below regarding volume 1 of HANGA). Many years later, in 1966, Kawakami produced a somewhat nostalgic book with 15 additional views of Alaska (including another of Holy Ascension church) titled "Tales of Alaska" (Arusuka monogatari: アラスカ物語) in an edition of 140 copies published by Nihon Aisho-kai (日本愛書会).

Kawakami Sumio alaska port
Kawakami Sumio: Arasuka unarasuka minato (Unalaska Harbor, Alaska: アラスカ・ウナラスカ港)
Woodcut, 1926 (225 x 290 mm)

During the Second World War, Kawakami, who detested the militarism of Japan, continued to produce prints. After he lost his teaching job in 1942 when the Ministry of Education banned the teaching of English, he relied on an small income from the sale of his books, which he produced in quick succession. Former students also helped out financially, but he was reduced to burning his carved blocks for firewood. Kawakami was able to relocate in March 1945 to his wife Chiyo's (千代) family home in Hokkaidô (北海道), shortly before the Allied bombings began on April 18. At that time. Hokkaidô was an evacuation area in Japan's northernmost prefecture. After the war, in 1949, he managed to resume teaching English when he became a lecturer at Utsunomiya Girls' High School. Once again, in 1951, Kawakami gathered together student and teacher volunteers to start an art magazine, this time calling it "Dull Blade" (Dontô: 鈍刀).

In 1929 Kawakami made a woodcut titled "Ginza at Night" (Yoru no Ginza: 夜の銀座) for the collaborative series "One Hundred Views of New Tokyo" (Shin Tokyo hyakkei: 新東京百景) published from 1929 to 1932. What is more often found, however, are impressions of Yoru no Ginza from recut blocks used in 1945 for another collaborative series, "Scenes of Lost Tokyo" or "Recollections of Scenes in Tokyo" (Tokyo kaiko zue: 東京回顧圖會); see below. This series was issued as a portfolio of 15 prints by nine artists who were members of the "Japan Print Association" (Nihon Hanga Kyôkai: 日本洋画協会). Yoru no Ginza was further reprinted in 1979 for volume 2 of the 14-volume "Collection of Kawakami Sumio" (Kawakami Sumio zenshû: 川上澄生全集) published by Chûô Kôronsha (中央公論社) in Tokyo. For this design, Kawakami made clever use of a vivid magenta pigment to evoke the neon-lighting that illuminated rebuilt Tokyo six years after the devastation of the Great Kantô Earthquake. Fashionable "modern girls" or moga (modan garu: モダンガル) and "modern boys" or mobo (modan boru: モダンボル) stroll about the Ginza shopping district, although one traditionally garbed woman is included at the far right. (Just above her are the kana for Ginza, ぎんざ.) Moga were notorious (in the eyes of many elders) for adopting Western-style dress and a more openly sexual manner.

Kawakami Sumio alaska port
Kawakami Sumio: Yoru no Ginza ("Ginza at Night": 夜の銀座)
Woodcut, 1929; recut blocks printed in 1945 (200 x 280 mm)
Series: Tokyo kaiko zue ("Scenes of lost Tokyo": 東京回顧圖會); published by Fugaku Shuppan

Among the more than 30 books designed by Kawakami, two limited-edition volumes are shown below. On the left, the cover for "Lamp" (Ranpu: らんぷ), issued in 250 copies in 1940 by the publisher Shimo Tarô of Aoi Shobô (葵書房) in Tokyo. The cover features an image of a Western woman holding a book. At the top is an English-practice sentence reading (with spelling errors): "Give me a euP of coffoe awithout Cream" along with equivalent katakana. The book is string-bound in Japanese "stitched-binding" style (fukuro-tôji: 袋綴じ). Kawakami was fond of books that were didactic in purpose, and he collected a large number of Meiji-period publications whose aim was to teach English to Japanese readers, often with Nanban objects accompanied by English words or descriptions.

In 1943, in the midst of the world war, Kawakami released a brightly colored and charming retelling of the Cinderella fairy tale. Titled "Illustrated Tale of Cinderella's Triumph" (Shinderera shusse e-banashi: しんでれら出世繪噺), the edition size of this private printing was 200 and the small book, also string-bound in Japanese style (fukuro-tôji), measured 215 x 150 mm. Shown below right is the front-half of the original wrapper for the book (the other half depicts two more adult women in similar kimono). The wrapper bears the title in a cartouche mimicking the style of a "poem-slip" or tanzaku (短册). The story more or less remains the same, but Cinderella and the other characters appear in kimono, and there are both Japanese and Western influences in the images. As previously mentioned, Kawakami lost his beloved mother in his youth, and it is possible this particular fairy tale had a special resonance for him. (As with Cinderella, he lived for a time with a stepmother, although there is no evidence that she was mean-spirited). In any case, Kawakami loved fairy tales from all over the world, so it is not surprising that he would have chosen Cinderella as a subject for a privately issued book.

Kawakami Sumio ranpu
Kawakami Sumio: Ranpu ("Lamp": らんぷ), 1940
Woodcut images / text, Ed. 250 (300 x 210 mm)
Publisher: Aoi Shobô (葵書房)

Kawakami Sumio: Shinderera shusse e-banashi
("Illustrated Tale of Cinderella's Triumph":
しんでれら出世繪噺), 1943, Ed. 200 (215 x 150 mm)

After the war, Kawakami increased his focus on the customs and appearance of foreigners, called Nanban (literally, "Southern Barbarians: 南蛮), a term derived from China referring to the people of Southeast Asia. However, in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Japan, it came to mean anything "foreign." A distinction was sometimes made to refer specifically to the Dutch as "red-hair persons" (kômôjin: 紅毛人). Kawakami was fascinated by images of Nanban culture as well as Japan's "civilization and enlightenment" (bunmei kaika: 文明開化), the latter term being a slogan of the Meiji period (1868-1912) signifying and celebrating the modernization of Japan and the importation of Western ideas and technology. Kawakami's birthplace was Yokohama, a port city where trade not only in goods but also in ideas proliferated. Moreover, his father Eiichirô (英一郎) was an enthusiastic supporter of Western modernism. Kawakami surely had a special connection with the blending of East and West, expressed by his prolific output of Nanban images.

Perhaps Kawakami's best known single-sheet design is his large woodcut titled "In the Manner of Europeans" (Nanban-buri: 南蛮ぶり), or as it is more frequently called in the West, "Nanbanesque Behavior" (see image top of this page). In Kawakami's print, a foreigner lies next to a courtesan, each smoking a very long pipe (kiseru: 烟管) while reclining on a brass bed. As it happens, Kawakami was an avid collector of kiseru. Purportedly, the image was based on an incident in the life of the samurai Maeda Toshiie (前田利家 1538-99), a warlord in the service of the daimyô Oda Nobunaga (織田信長 1534-82), one of the three "great unifiers" of Japan. According to Oliver Statler (see ref.), Kawakami was inspired by an old illustration in one of his many vintage and antique books — he particularly enjoyed collecting Japanese books intended to teach English as well as volumes in other foreign languages. Kawakami used dyed paper (somegami: 染紙) for this design, with early impressions printed on light-yellow, greenish-yellow, or light-beige paper. These have a square artist's seal with a character from the artist's given name, "Sumi" (澄), where the entire kanji is visible. Later printings are found on brighter, uniformly colored yellow paper that sometimes have fewer hand-applied colors. Moreover, a recut "Sumi" seal was used whose lower-left corner is missing, thereby severing the lower left stroke of the kanji character. Later impressions often have pencil signatures as well, which are not known on early printings. All this being said, it is the marvelous image that has long captivated collectors, in which the alluring figures represent the merging of East and West, and the viewer delights in seeing the curious combination of a kimono-clad courtesan with a Western-style brass bed — a furnishing, by the way, that the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi (豊臣秀吉 1537-1598), Japan's second "Great Unifier," had installed in several rooms inside Osaka Castle, the last stronghold of the Toyotomi clan.

Kawakami Sumio arrival of foreigners
Kawakami Sumio: Bansen irizu ("Arrival of a Barbarian Ship": 蛮船入津)
Woodcut with hand coloring, 1952 (image: 310 x 570 mm; paper: 390 x 630 mm)

Another hand-colored woodcut on the theme of the "Southern Barbarians" (Nanbanjin: 南蛮人) is Kawakami's large horizontal design from 1952 depicting the arrival of foreigners. This print and many other works by Kawakami are at their core story-telling pictures. "Arrival of a Barbarian Ship" (Bansen irizu: 蛮船入津) depicts five elegantly attired adult-male Europeans accompanied by a boy attendant as they encounter a group of Japanese (with the exception of what appears to be a black-robed European priest). The print title is inscribed in an elaborate yellow and red cartouche. The great black Nanban sailing ship (Bansen: 蛮船) is anchored in the distance, and a symbolic Western compass is placed above the visitors. The Europeans have brought with them an array of gifts (or merchandise), including a clock and hourglass, and ceramics. It is particularly interesting that the Japanese are themselves dressed in a hybrid manner. The foremost figure, although in a boldly striped kimono, has a large beaded necklace with a Christian cross, and the figure just to the left of the priest wears a European-style white ruffled collar. Some of the women are dressed as Christian nuns. Note the figure at the top left, who smokes a long pipe as in Kawakami's woodcut "Nanbanesque Behavior" at the top of this page.

The work shown below is an unusual woodcut with hand-applied color mimicking a stencil print (kappazuri-e: 合羽摺絵). There is also a suggestion of stained glass in the rendering of the forms and sectioned-off colors. A combination such as this of the "sacred and profane" is a theme that Kawakami explored a number of times in his oeuvre. One might accept this pairing as symbolic of the meeting between East and West, recalling both the advantages and conflicts of bringing together the two very different cultures.

Kawakami Sumio christ and oiran
Kawakami Sumio: Kirisuto to oiran (Christ and courtesan: キリストと花魁)
Woodcut, 1958 (395 x 275 mm)

Kawakami Sumio photoAmong Kawakami's experiments was his use of materials other than paper for his printmaking. There are a few woodcuts printed on what some commentators have called "leather," but what might instead be "faux hide," a synthetic leather substitute. The work shown below from 1953 is titled "Imaginary Map" (kyôchû no chizu: 胸中の地図) or "Map of the mind" (spelled in the magenta-colored cartouche as "Kyoochuu no Chizu"). The keyblock was printed in the usual manner and then the colors were brushed on by hand. There are also impressions printed on paper in the standard technique for woodcuts, although those, too, are hand-colored (see National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, no. 828 in refs.). The photo shown on the right captures Kawakami at a desk with some of his woodcuts laid out for viewing. The work at the lower right is a partly visible impression of "Imaginary Map" printed on paper.

Nine exotic "lands" populated by people in native dress or costume are named in the yellow forms seen on the map below. These are (R to L): Abobora, Raxa, Graça, Limbo, Domingo, São Tomè, Calix, Rosario, and Un. Standing on either side of the frame with an inscription (including Kawakami's name) at the lower left is a waist-coated foreigner and a decked-out courtesan. Aside from the foreign lands, the image is decorated with a nautical compass, a spouting whale, sailing ships, mermaids, and angels. It would appear that Kawakami, always fascinated by antique foreign artifacts, was inspired by various maps drawn on parchment that he saw in real life or illustrated in more than one of the books in his collection.

Kawakami Sumio imaginary map
Kawakami Sumio: Kyôchû no chizu ("Imaginary Map": 胸中の地図)
Woodcut with hand coloring on faux hide, 1953 (image: 315 x 480 mm; object: 455 x 630 mm)
Minneapolis Institute of Art

Kawakami Sumio holy ascension churchAlthough Kawakami was an independent artist who claimed to have learned little about printmaking from his contemporaries, he had opportunities in his youth to visit regularly the workshop of Gôda Kiyoshi (合田清 1862-1938), an artist who was skilled in traditional woodcuts and who learned wood engraving in Europe. (Gôda's eldest son, Koichi 弘一, was a classmate of Kawakami's at Aoyama Gakuin High School.) Kawakami also admired the art and poetry of Takehisa Yumeji (竹久夢二 1884-1934). In addition, he befriended other "creative print" (sôsaku hanga: 創作版画) artists and saw their work while participating in several art societies when he joined the "National Creative Painting Association" (Koguka Sôsaku Kyôkai: 国画創作協会) in 1925, "Japanese Creative Print Association" (Nihon Sôsaku Hanga Kyôkai: 日本創作版画協会) in 1929, and the "Japan Print Association" (Nihon Hanga Kyôkai: 日本洋画協会) in 1931 (as a founding member). Kawakami was also involved in the publication and management of various coterie art magazines (dôjin zasshi: 同人雑誌) to promote sôsaku hanga.

Kawakami contributed to various dôjin zasshi, including "Poetry and Prints" (Shi to hanga: 詩と版画), "Wind" (Kaze: 風), "Print Art" (Han geijutsu: 版芸術), "Black and White" (Shiro to kura: 白と黒), and "Woodpecker" (Kitsutsuki: きつつき). For the inaugural volume of HANGA published in 1924, Kawakami depicted the previously discussed Holy Ascension Russian Orthodox Church at Unalaska Harbor, Alaska (see image above left). The small woodcut is mounted on paper measuring 246 x 193 mm. The view once again includes the two distinctive "onion domes" and the rising cliffs in the distance.

Helen Merritt (see 1990 ref.) pointed out that in an interview (see Haas ref.), Kawakami acknowledged his admiration for the post-impressionist "naïf" painter Henri Rousseau (1844-1910). She added that, "As in Rousseau, there is warmth and humor and untutored primitivism in Kawakami." In regard to his use of foreign objects in his images, Kawakami said, "My so-called exoticism ... is not oriented towards the West at all. Rather, it is a nostalgia for the particular poetic feeling generated by the crazy mixed-up Meiji culture in which I felt secure." Onchi Kôshirô considered Kawakami an "incomparable artist" and believed that "there were very few artists ... in the same class with him." Kawakami had, in Onchi's opinion, "a highly developed aesthetic sense" whose designs, based on an "interest in occidental civilization and enlightenment [explored] early Nanban influences and the influx of western civilization during the Meiji period."

Kawakami Sumio kashiwazaki kurofenkanThe Kanuma City Sumio Kawakami Museum (Kanuma Shiritsu Kawakami Sumio Bijutsukan: 鹿沼市立川上澄生美術館) established in 1992, is dedicated solely to his works. The museum's Meiji Western-style building, although differing in its details, was inspired by a Kawakami print (see image at right). The collection numbers around 2,000 works donated by Hasegawa Katsusaburô (長谷川勝三郎 1912-2001), including woodcuts, hand-colored woodblock prints, limited-edition books with woodcuts, paintings in oils on canvas, paintings on glass (garasu-e: 硝子絵), and calligraphy. The benefactor Hasegawa was born in Kanuma City and studied with Kawakami, whom he first met in 1924 when he was a twelve-year-old student at Utsunomiya Junior High School where Kawakami taught English.

Kawakami was awarded the Tochigi prefecture prize for contributions to culture in 1949. The breakthrough exhibition took place in 1958 when 200 of his works were shown at the "Japan Folk Art Society" (Nihon Mingei Kyôkai: 日本民芸協会 est. 1931), helping to broaden recognition of his work. A large memorial retrospective was held at Tochigi Prefectural Art Museum in 1974, and then again at the same venue from December 2007 to March 2008.

Prints by Kawakami Sumio can be found in important institutional collections, including the Art Institute of Chicago; British Museum, London; Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; Chazen Museum of Art, University of Wisconsin, Madison; Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, MA; Honolulu Museum of Art; Kawakami Sumio Museum, Kanuma City; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Minneapolis Institute of Art; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto; National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo; and Portland Art Museum, Oregon. © 2021 by John Fiorillo


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  • Chiba-shi Bijutsukan (Chiba City Art Museum: 千葉市美術館): Nihon no hanga 1931-1940 (Japanese prints 1931-1940: 日本の版画), Vol. II, 2004, pp. 70 (nos. 99-100); 79 (no. 127); 82 (no. 135); 120 (nos. 227-229); 123 (nos. 239-240).
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  • Uhlenbeck, C., Newland, A.R., de Vries, M.: Waves of renewal: modern Japanese prints, 1900 to 1960. Leiden: Hotei Publishing, 2016, pp. 255-256, nos. 210-212.
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