Living Colour’: vibrant contemporary prints in the Nihon no hanga museum

Aafke van Ewijk

Twice a year, the private museum Nihon no hanga in Amsterdam shows gems from Elise Wessel’s renowned collection of modern Japanese prints, mainly from the first half of the twentieth century. This autumn we’re in for a little surprise. The current exhibition ‘Living Colour’ is devoted to the work of the contemporary artist Fukami Gashū (1953-) and shows that sōsaku hanga (creative prints) is not a genre from the past. 
Upon entering the renovated seventeenth-century canal house, one steps directly into Gashū’s world. The ‘Gazing cat’ frankly presents itself as a protagonist. ‘Grapes’ showcases Gashū’s superb sense for colour and composition, a wax pastel study placed next to the vibrant print. Different from the usual chronological approach that must reflect the development of the artist, the visitor is first introduced to a selection from Gashū’s work that represents his major themes. Another distinct feature is that many prints are paired with preliminary studies that are both pleasing works of art in themselves and invite to pay close attention to the artistic process. 

The garden was clearly a source of inspiration for the artist. To mind might come Kawanishi Hide’s stone laterns, but there is no such nostalgia in Gashū’s prints, where animals are the central theme. The works exhibited on the middle floor seem to reflect a garden with pond. Prints of birds, fish, ducks, turtles, and frogs alternate with cats in various forms, as if they are prowling around. The latter are not only the artist’s but also the collector’ favorite animal (see the portrait of Elise Wessels in Andon 108, p. 34). Gashū has a fondness not only for cat’s gazes but also for their tails, that are a striking blue or take up two thirds of the composition, in various degrees of abstraction. In ‘Cat and Carp’ the cat has finally found its way to the colourful creature in the pond.

The preliminary studies are a fascinating element of the exhibition. Nose almost pressed against the glass, one can see how Gashū built his studies from wax pastel, various kinds of paint, water colours, pencil and even ballpoint. He made corrections on tightly glued paper cut-outs. Discovery: the traces of corrections are sometimes deliberately taken over in the print, such as the old colour shining through. This happens for example in ‘Cat’ (#27 and #28). In the study, one moreover sees that the artist incalculated the non-alignment of black outlines and colour blocks. In other words, this is not the result of cutting the blocks in an ‘unexpertly’ way or doing away with registration marks. In various cases, the colour changes between study and print. The green pine tree on the cover of the exhibition catalogue (‘Leaving bird and resting bird’) turns out to have been an ominous black in the first design. 
Despite the artists’ willingness to share his preliminary studies with the world, Gashū remained unresponsive to repeated attempts to involve him (so I was told). He started to study printmaking in Japan and the USA from the late 1970s and we may connect various recurring themes to his home and pet-keeping habits in Nagasaki, where he lived from 1988. Since 1997 he lives in Fukuoka. The exhibition does not comment on, nor exploit the artist’s ‘silence’. And why do we even want the artist to speak or write? He is under no obligation to communicate through other means because he happens to be alive. 

When sōsaku hanga is discussed, the focus is generally on the carving, that the artist deliberately takes upon themself and brings that crudeness of form that is so strikingly different from traditional prints and shin hanga. There are many short movies and texts available that explain the stages of these latter prints (i.e., ‘Japanese prints’), but this exhibition is a rare occasion to see how the preparatory works for sōsaku hanga can be artworks in themselves and how they relate to the endproduct. I heartily recommend a visit and not to underestimate the time one can spend studying Gashū’s animals in this very pleasant museum. 

Where: Nihon no hanga, Keizersgracht 586, Amsterdam
When: November 4 - November 27, Friday through Sunday, 12:00-17:00
Admission: free
Guided tours in Dutch on Friday, November 18 and 25, 14:00-14:40
Website: www.nihon-no-hanga.nl

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