spacer 12
VJP title
Utamaro print showing


spacer 16

YAMAMOTO Kanae (山本鼎)


Yamamoto fishman Yamamoto Kanae (山本鼎) was born into an impoverished samurai family in Okazaki, Aichi Prefecture, in central Japan. At the age of 10 he apprenticed with the wood engraver and illustrator Sakurai Kyôun (dates unknown) for five years. He moved to Tokyo in 1902 to study yôga (Western-style painting: 洋画) at the Tokyo School of Fine Arts while supporting himself as an illustrator. In 1907, Yamamoto and the yôga painters Ishii Hakutei (石井柏亭 1882-1958) and Morita Tsunetomo (森田恒友 1881-1933) founded the magazine Hôsun (One's Ideas or Square Inch: 方寸), which was published in 35 issues from 1907 to 1911. This was the beginning of Yamamoto's lifelong effort to support the arts through organizational programs.

In 1912, Yamamoto left Japan for Paris, where he studied copperplate etching at the École des Beaux Arts. However, he did not enroll in formal classes but instead worked primarily at his residence while also visiting the Louvre and other museums and institutions around the city. In 1913 he journeyed to Brittany with other Japanese artists, where he sketched landscapes and scenes of peasants, often developing paintings and prints based on these views after he returned to Japan in 1916.

On the way back to Japan, he traveled via the Trans-Siberian Railway. What he saw while in Russia over the course of about five months, including peasant-art museums and free children's art programs, influenced him profoundly. By 1918 he had started the Jidô jiyûga Kyôiku Undô (Children's free-drawing education movement: 児童自由画教育運動) and the following year the Nômin Bijutsu Undô (Farmers' art movement: 農民美術運動), offering courses during the agricultural off-season that were roughly equivalent to the peasants' art efforts in Russia. Furthermore, for years afterward, he devoted much of his time to socialist causes, in particular, promoting the popularization of art. Yet he always remained loyal to the sôsaku hanga movement, and joined others in founding the Nihon Sôsaku Hanga Kyôkai (Japan Creative Print Association: 日本創作版画協会) in 1918 and the Nihon Hanga Kyôkai (Japan Print Association: 日本版画協会) in 1931.

Yamamoto fishmanThe seminal work in the sôsaku hanga movement was Yamamoto's self-carved and self-printed woodcut portrait known as Gyofu (Fisherman: 漁夫) made during a trip to Chiba Prefecture (see image above). The work was featured in the coterie magazine Myôjo (Morning Star: 明星) in 1904. At the time, it was called a tôga ("knife picture": 刀画), so-called because Yamamoto used a curved chisel directly on the woodblock instead of resorting to the traditional method of cutting through a preparatory drawing (hanshita-e: 版下絵) on very thin paper pasted to the carving block. Today there is a fairly broad consensus that Yamamoto's Gyofu print design was the first true sôsaku hanga woodcut.

The experimental nature of some of Yamamoto's work can be found throughout much of his early career. For example, although his printmaking was primarily in the woodcut medium, he also explored combinations of woodcut and zinc-plate lithography. Devoted as he was to the promotion of sôsaku hanga, when the brothers-in-law Rinzô Satake and Shôkô Sasaki consulted with Yamamoto in 1921 to develop a pastel crayon with an oil binder, he joined them in three years of development until they succeeded in producing the world's first oil pastel, marketed under the name "Cray-Pas" through the Sakura Color Products Corporation.

It is known that the small but imaginative design illustrated immediately above was sketched while journeying by ship near Singapore in 1912 and then printed in Paris using six separate woodblocks. Titled Dekki no ichigû (A corner of the deck: デッキの一隅), it was part of a subscription series or hanpukai (buying club: 頒布会) set up by the artist's father to help pay the costs of traveling to and from Europe. The remarkable effect of dappled sunlight was achieved through the use of a curved chisel, which in the Edo period (1615-1868) had been used mostly as a gouging tool to remove unwanted sections of wood. However, in the hands of Yamamoto and eventually other sôsaku hanga printmakers (Onchi Kôshirô most notable among them), the curved chisel was transformed into a primary carving tool for shapes, the edges of "soft" forms, and color areas in their print designs.

Yamamoto bathers in Brittany

Yamamoto's trip to Brittany resulted in some of his finest prints. In his travel diary he wrote that he designed 15 prints in all, but after two years in Paris he sold or mailed back to Japan only about half of the works while destroying the remainder due to his dissatisfaction with the results. Shown immediately above is a most unusual design, titled Burutonnu no suiyoku (Bretonnes bathing: ブルトンヌの水浴) from 1913. Made while still in Brittany, Yamamoto sent it back to Japan for distribution through the aforementioned subscription series. The figures in this landscape are quite simplified, although realistic enough to be recognizable as female bathers. Much of the work is composed of flat planes of color and expressive textures, with the zones of color hinting at abstraction. Supposedly, Yamamoto did not hold entirely favorable opinions of some of the great French artists of the day (Monet, Rodin, and van Gogh among them), but here one might be tempted to argue that if Yamamoto saw any of Tahitian paintings by Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), whether in person or reproduced in books or magazines, then the post-Impressionist might have had some influence on works such as "Bretonnes bathing."

Yamamoto summer in Brittany

Another French artist who might have exerted some influence on Yamamoto in the early years was the post-Impressionist Paul Cezanne (1839-1906), one of the progenitors of modern art in the West. In particular, Cezanne's building up of forms through color and and gradated tonal variations while relying on a fairly dark palatte might be recognized in some of Yamamoto's paintings. The illustration above depicts two peasant women on a sunny summer day in Brittany. Known as Burutanyu no natsu (Summer in Brittany: ブルタニュの夏), Yamamoto's oil on canvas evokes some of Cezanne's red, yellow, and green hues (Cezanne used, among other colorants, vermilion, red ochre, burnt siena, rose madder, brilliant yellow, Naples yellow, chrome yellow, yellow ochre, emerald green viridian, and terre verte). The building up of the colors on the houses in the background appear Cezannesque.

Yamamoto ceased making prints in the early 1920s and devoted himself to painting until he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage in 1942. He spent his remaining years in mountainous Nagano in the city of Ueda, where after his death in 1946, the Yamamoto Kanae Municipal Museum was completed in 1962.


  • 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, p. 259, nos. 2493-2498.
  • Merritt, Helen, Modern Japanese Woodblock Prints: The Early Years. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1990.
  • Merritt, Helen, and Yamada, N.: Guide to Modern Japanese Woodblock Prints 1900-1975. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1992.
  • 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, pp. 38-39, 74-75, nos. 2-1, 2-2, 2-3, 5-1, 5-2.
  • Sekino Jun’ichirô: My printmaking teachers: Biographies of modern Japanese print artists (Waga hangashitachi: Kindai Nihon hanga kaden, わが版画師たち 近代日本版画家伝). Tokyo: Kôdansha, 1982..
  • Statler, Oliver: Modern Japanese Prints: An Art Reborn. Rutland, VT: Tuttle, 1956, pp. 9-20 and 186-187.
  • Uhlenbeck, C., Reigle-Newland, A., deVries, M.: Waves of renewal: modern Japanese prints, 1900 to 1960. Leiden: Hotei Publishing, pp. 142-150.
spacer 16
Viewing Japanese Prints
Designed & Written by John Fiorillo
Site launched 1999
All texts and pictures are copyright © (All Rights Reserved)
and may not be reproduced without permission.