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Utamaro print showing


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KINOSHITA Tomio (木下富雄)


Kinoshita face no 3Kinoshita Tomio (木下富雄) was born in the fishing village of Fusuhara-chô (now Yokkaichi City) in Mie Prefecture. After graduating in 1941 from the Nagoya City Crafts High School (Nagoya shiritsu kôgei gakkô), and it being wartime, Kinoshita was relocated by the government to Manchuria to work as a lens polisher, but an illness led to his repatriation after two years.

Largely self-taught, Kinoshita worked at oil painting until around 1955-1956. In the early 1950s, he was inspired by the work of Hiratsuka Un'ichi (1895-1997) and began designing prints around 1953 (see "Flags" and "Cry" below). At first, his prints were more or less transcriptions of his paintings. He gave away or destroyed many of these works, which he regretted later.

Once Kinoshita decided to pursue printmaking as his primary mode of art, he exhibited at the Nihon Hanga Kyôkai (Japanese Print Association: 日本版画協会) in 1957, winning their Association Prize in 1958. From 1960 to 1966 he was a member of the Kokuga kai (National Painting Association: 国画会) and from 1966 onward, he submitted works annually to the Nihon Hanga Kyôkai exhibitions.

The artist and owner of the Franell Gallery in Tokyo, Frances Blakemore (1906-1997), wrote in her 1975 survey of modern Japanese print artists that Kinoshita studied the works of early European artists, such as the German masters Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) and Lucas Cranach (1472–1553). In particular, their methods of varying the width and closeness of lines in order to create depth and dimension fascinated him, although their aim was realism, whereas Kinoshita was working toward emotive expression.

He wrote about one of his works, "Kao-3" ("Faces no. 3"), carved circa 1960-1962 (see above and Michener ref. below): "In combinations of faces ... I am trying to express the sufferings of society, of man, of mankind, of all living beings." To create this remarkable image, Kinoshita carved two boards of katsura (Judas tree, Cercidiphyllum japonicum: 桂). He mixed carmine and vermilion watercolors to arrive at the orange that he applied three times to achieve complete coverage and intensity. The black pigment was traditional Japanese sumi (墨 or 墨). The paper was natural-color torinoko-gami (鳥の子紙).

Kinoshita's earliest woodcuts do not entirely foretell what was to come, but there were hints. In an untitled view of flag poles under a red-cloud sky from 1953 (see below), the repetition and variable thickness of the clouds would a few years later translate into the jagged-edge linear patterns that characterized his mature works. A print such as "Cry" from 1955 (see below) reveals the beginnings of the soon-to-appear linear method, not to mention the overt anxiety and grief that would defines other mature portraits.

Kinoshita: Untitled ["Flags"], 1953 (540 x 430 mm) Kinoshita: Untitled ["Cry"], 1955 (600 x 450 mm)

Kinoshita would have seen the jagged-edge manner of line carving in Hiratsuka Un'ichi's prints, the result of a technique called tsukibori or "poking strokes" made with a small, flat, square-end chisel with slightly curved tip called an aisuki, or else a U-shaped gouge (komasuki), rocking the blade side to side in short strokes to create a jagged edge while carving the lines. This method was very demanding. Moreover, the printing was very time-consuming, requiring three or more hours to complete a single impression, and so Kinoshita produced only a few print designs each year. He believed (or more appropriately, felt) that the more difficult the carving and printing, the more convincing the final work would be, and the more expressive of his motivations for making the image.

Kinoshita did not print an entire edition on consecutive days through to its final run, but rather printed a few impressions and then waited until they were sold before making more. See, for example, the later printing of "Face - Dragon Woman" (Face 竜女), which was carved in 1960, but whose edition was not completed until commissioned by the late Japanese print dealer Paul Schweitzer (Washington, DC) in 1985. (Kinoshita appears to have consistently dated his prints according to the year of printing, not the carving of the blocks.) Moreover, Kinoshita’s palette tended to brighten as the years went on. The impression of "Dragon Woman" as well as that of "Kao 3" (shown at the top of this page) are examples of that trend. The strong, bright orange replaced a more somber brownish-red used in earlier printings of "Dragon Woman." For designs before 1962, Kinoshita sometimes applied a thin wash of sumi to tone down bright colors. Moreover, he frequently would vary colors for the same design, a function of not wanting to repeat himself mechanically and not wanting to limit the range of colors over time, particularly when many months or years separated early from later impressions.

Kinoshita kamen-3
Kinoshita Tomio: Kamen-3 (Three masks), c. late 1950s

Kinoshita's aim was to make bold statements about the suffering of human beings, which led him to develop his typology of abstracted faces or masks. Donald Jenkins observed (see ref. below) that the faces "may be angular, square, round, or oval, but oval and square faces never appear together in a single composition. Though without sex or race, these faces are intensely human and capable of evoking a range of emotions, from mirth to great sadness."

By carefully varying the distances between "agitated" lines, Kinoshita was able to suggest the shapes of eyes, mouths, noses, cheekbones, necks, and hands. What is especially interesting in terms of technique is the manner of cutting each line, not so much in imitation of printing with woodgrain, but for the purpose of achieving a pictorial and emotional effect through an invented pattern suggestive of natural forms. In the designs where the heads are squared off, Kinoshita relied on a severe "human geometry" of singular impact.

In his most expressive works, Kinoshita created unforgettably bleak visions of the human condition. In "Kamen-3" (shown immediately above) from circa late 1950s, three heads express raw angst. The lines in the middle head seem to reveal the sinews and muscles beneath the skin of the face and neck, as if a protective mask has been peeled away to expose how vulnerable we are as emotional beings.

Kinoshita Tomio: Shusaku — sono ichi (Study: No. 1), 1959 (592 x 905 mm)

Kinoshita also designed a small number of non-figurative studies exploring line, texture, and form. In his large-format Shusaku — sono ichi (Study: No. 1) from 1959 (shown above), irregular rectangles fill an immense, roughly oval, and vaguely natural form that hovers over a stark landscape with a low horizon line. There is what appears to be a cobblestone road or path dramatically receding into the distance courtesy of single vanishing-point perspective. Along either side are rows of linear furrows. The sky is a complex texture of pink overprinted with mottled black. The image is surreal and mysterious, its intention unclear and unsettling.

Kinoshita gray facesIn the 1980s, Kinoshita stopped making prints and no longer exhibited his works, except for submissions to the Nihon Hanga Kyôkai. To earn a living, he returned to seal carving in wood, bone, or stone, which he had learned from his wife decades earlier (she came from a family of seal carvers). For Kinoshita, print making had been undertaken simply for pleasure without regard for commercial gain.

There is a totemic aspect to Kinoshita's heads (and bodies) that remains unnerving, even after repeated viewing. Gaston Petit (see 1973 ref. below) suggested a link with the traditional haniwa ("clay cylinder" or "circle of clay": 埴輪) figures, hollow terracotta figures that were made for ritual use and buried with the dead as funerary objects during the Kofun ("old tomb") period (古墳時代 c. 250 to c. 600 C.E.). Many of these objects have horizontal slits marking the eyes and mouths.

Kinoshita's "Gray Faces," a large-format (855 x 595 mm) design from 1980 (edition of 25; see image at right; courtesy of Zena Kruzick Tribal Art) confronts the viewer straight on with three figures, each head with a slightly different mouth, as if each had a individual story to tell or grief to express. It is difficult to identify in our responses to these forms what is instinctual versus what is culture bound, but their geometry of expression seems timeless, fraught, and disturbing.

Kinoshita's works are in the collections of many museums, including the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria; Art Institute of Chicago: British Museum, London; Brooklyn Museum, New York; Honolulu Museum of Art; Houston Museum; Los Angeles County Museum of Modern Art; Mie Prefectural Art Museum (which holds the largest collection of the artist’s prints.); New York Museum of Modern Art; Niigata Prefectural Museum of Modern Art; Philadelphia Museum; and the Portland Art Museum. © 2020 by John Fiorillo


  • Blakemore, Frances: Who's Who in Modern Japanese Prints. Tokyo/New York: Weatherhill, 1975, pp. 80-82.
  • Donald Jenkins: Images of a Changing World: Japanese Prints of the Twentieth Century. Portland Art Museum, 1983, p. 131.
  • Merritt, Helen: Guide to Modern Japanese Woodblock Prints: 1900-1975, , University of Hawaii Press, 1992, p. 66-67;  
  • Michener, James: The Modern Japanese Print : An Appreciation. Rutland, VT: Tuttle, 1968, pp. 32-34.
  • Michiyo Morioka: An American Artist in Tokyo: Frances Blakemore (1906-1997). Seattle: Blakemore Foundation, 2007.
  • Petit, Gaston: 44 Modern Japanese Print Artists. Tokyo/New York: Kodansha, 1973, pp. 186-193, nos. C37-38, 105-110.
  • Petit, Gaston and Arboleda, Amadio: Evolving Techniques in Japanese Woodblock Prints. Tokyo/New York: Kodansha, 1977, pp. 21 & 80, figs. 6 & 86-87.
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