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VJP title
Utamaro print showing


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SAITÔ Kiyoshi (斎藤清)


Saitô Kiyoshi (斎藤清 1907-1997) was born in Sakamoto, Fukushima prefecture. He studied Western-style painting at the Hongô Painting Institute and exhibited his oil paintings with various art groups and societies. After having a print accepted by the Kokugakai (National Picture Association: 国画会), Saitô began to seriously pursue printmaking. In 1938 he issued his first prints in his now famous "Winter in Aizu" series.

Saitô Kiyoshi: Winter in Aizu (D), woodcut, 1938 (c. 1941), 360 x 450 mm

Saitô worked primarily in the woodblock medium, while also producing works in collagraph, drypoint, and color and ink paintings (suiboku ga). He carved his images into blocks of various woods, either solid katsura or plywood faced with katsura, rawan, yanagi, keyaki, shina, or lauan, to obtain a wide range of textures. In some cases he used only one block for all the colors in a design, while for others he needed as many as 5 or 6 different blocks. He often used kizuki-hôsho ("genuinely-made hôsho," that is, the fine-quality paper made from kôzo, "Paper mulberry").

When Saitô visited his childhood home in Aizu in 1938, it prompted a series of nostalgic images. These and other views of Aizu ultimately numbered around 138 designs from 1938 until 1994. The print illustrated above is one of his early Winter in Aizu scenes. The blocks were carved in 1938, but prints were made over a span of years. The impression shown here was produced circa 1941 in an unnumbered edition. When Oliver Statler described it (see 1956 ref. below), 60 impressions had already been made. Two blocks of plywood faced with shina were used in two printing stages. The shades of black and gray were achieved through various amounts of water added to dilute the sumi pigment (Japanese carbon black), along with altering the concentration of the pigment as it was brushed on the carved blocks. Early papers were kizuki hôsho, while later printings were made on thicker papers. One senses here that Saitô was beginning to find his artistic voice with these highly stylized, deceptively simple images.

Saitô Kiyoshi: Steady Gaze (Flower), 凝視 [花], woodcut, 1950 (600 x 412 mm)

Saitô stunned the Japanese art establishment by sharing a special prize for Japanese artists (along with Komai Tetsurô for an etching/coarse-grain sandpaper print) at the Sào Paulo Biennial in 1951, beating out Japanese paintings and sculpture, still at that time considered to be superior arts. That a self-taught printmaker could grab such a prize was an outrage in traditional art circles (Saitô did it again at the Ljubljana International Biennial in 1956), but he was a singular figure in raising the esteem for such works and in directly contributing to the survival and development of the modern Japanese print on the international stage. The award-winning print was carved in 1950 for an edition of 30 and is known today as "Steady Gaze — Flower" 凝視 [花] (Note: This design is different from a slightly earlier [1948] large print by Saitô depicting a black and gray cat against a dark streaked-red background titled "Steady Gaze.") Statler called the 1950 design "Staring"; others refer to it as "Woman Gazing." The roughly 24x16 inch print required two blocks of solid katsura and four printing stages. The applied colors were sumi and gouache; mica was sprinkled on the white areas while they were still wet. Early paper was obonai made in Echizen, while the later printings were made on kizuki hôsho. Saitô said that for this design, he was influenced by Gauguin in the use of textured wood, and by Redon for the manner of personal expression.

Saitô Kiyoshi: Kuratsuya (Beauty contest: 競艷), woodcut, 1973 (454 x 746 mm)

Woodgrain patterns feature prominently in the works of Saitô. One of his most playful designs is titled "Beauty Contest" (競艷) from 1973. It is a large print measuring 454 x 746 mm, issued in an edition of 80. Each of the fanciful cats proudly displays a unique woodgrain pattern, as Saitô puts the nine felines on display in a tableau of vanity not much different from the lineups of their human counterparts in traditional beauty pageants. Also on display is Saitô's mastery of printing with patterns—a tour de force in the use of this sôsaku hanga technique. What should one make of the black cat reclining on the far right? Is she to be seen as shy, aloof, bored, coquettish?

Saitô Kiyoshi: Ryôanji Kyoto (竜安寺京都) — Flagstone Path, woodcut, 1960, ed. 200 (600 x 412 mm)

One of the Western artists Saitô admired was Piet Mondrian (1872-1944), and some of his views of buildings and temples seem to reflect that artist's geometric forms and grid-like arrangements. (Saitô also acknowledged the influence of Edvard Munch, 1863-1944; Odilon Redon, 1840-1916; and Paul Gauguin, 1848-1903). In the woodcut shown above, Saitô depicted a stone path at the famous Zen garden at Ryôan Temple in Kyoto. The flattening of depth and the verticality of the rectangular forms do indeed bring to mind some works by Mondrian. Moreover, Saitô's signature use of woodgrain is here raised to the level of significant visual vocabulary within the artist's oeuvre. In addition, the use of gomazuri ("sesame printing": ごま摺) further enhances the range of expression, as in the small rectangular brown and dark-gray sections at the top of the design. This is achieved by soft rubbing of the baren to produce a speckled pattern said to resemble tiny sesame seeds (dark stippling against a lighter background).

Works by Saitô Kiyoshi are included in many public institutions around the globe, such as collections including Art Gallery of Greater Victoria; Art Institute of Chicago; British Museum, London; Carnegie Museum of Art; Cleveland Museum of Art; Cincinnati Art Museum; Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; Fukushima Prefectural Museum of Art; Gallery of New South Wales; Indianapolis Museum of Art; Kanagawa Prefectural Museum; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Museum of Modern Art, New York; National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo; National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC; New York Public Library; Philadelphia Museum of Art; Portland Art Museum, Oregon; Ringling Museum, Sarasota, Florida; Tikotin Museum of Japanese Art, Haifa, Israel; and University of Michigan Museum of Art. © 1999-2021 by John Fiorillo


  • Harada, Minoru: The Life and Works of Kiyoshi Saito. Tokyo: Abe Shuppan, 1990.
  • Merritt, Helen and Yamada, Nanako: Guide to Modern Japanese Woodblock Prints: 1900-1975. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1992, p. 129.
  • Petit, Gaston and Arboleda, Amadio: Evolving Techniques in Japanese Woodblock Prints. Tokyo: Kodansha, 1977, pp. 56 and 152.
  • Sakai, Tetsuo et al.: Mô hitotsu no Nihon bijutsushi kin gendai hanga no meisaku 2020 (Another History of Japanese Art: Masterpieces of Modern and Contemporary Prints 2020: もうひとつの日本美術史近現代版画の名作2020). Fukushima Prefectural Museum of Art and Museum of Modern Art, Wakayama, 2020, p. 142, no. 8-4.
  • Smith, Lawrence: Modern Japanese Prints, 1912-1989. London: British Museum Press, 1994, pp. 59-60, plates 93 and 95.
  • Statler, Oliver: Modern Japanese Prints: An Art Reborn. Rutland VT: Tuttle, 1956, pp. 53-58 and 191-192, plates 29-36.
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