It’s rare that I see images I like instantly. When I discovered the work of Umetarō Azechi (1902 – 1999), I knew I’d found something special. Azechi was born in Aichi Prefecture in central Japan. He’s known for his collection of woodblock prints showing various aspects of Japanese mountains, the creatures living there and the people who climb them.
Aged 24, Azechi got a job with the National Printing Bureau, but in his free time he dabbled in brush painting. In the summer of 1937 he traveled to the mountainous region of Karuizawa in Nagano Prefecture, for work. While there, he created multiple images of the dramatic Mt. Asama, the most active volcano on Honshū island. He went on to create multiple woodblock prints centering on mountains, a subject that was to occupy him for the rest of his life.
Despite his work commitments, Azechi missed the mountains and would sometimes stay there for up to a month at a time. From his 50s, his interest shifted from landscapes to the people who climb them. His Yama Otoko (“Mountain Men”) series is the best example of this. His work began to garner interest and Azechi gradually became famous as a modern printmaker.
The work Azechi produced involved creating woodblock prints which he carved himself in his studio in Machida, located to the west of Tokyo Metropolis. I visited Atelier U in July 2018. The gallery is about a 20-minute walk from JR Tsurukawa Station. Standing outside it, you imagine you’ve come to the wrong place, because the studio is hidden in the garden of a normal house, and not visible from the street.
Surrounded in the rambling plants of the garden and built of wood, the atelier seems like a mountain cabin. Inside, framed prints hang from the beams. Postcards, wooden carvings of the raichō bird which features heavily in his works, badges and books are arranged around the room. There are even t-shirts provided by the Japanese mountaineering company Montbell. The atelier acts as both gallery and museum to the life of Umetarō as an artist.
His printmaking inks and tools are displayed, and the room still has the atmosphere of an artist’s studio. His work is colorful, unique and very creative.
I bought a raichō bird badge and postcard, a book of the Yama Otoko print series, and a T-shirt. The outing was a lovely chance to get out of central Tokyo and see work created by someone with such passion.
After taking a class in making woodblock prints last year, I fully appreciate the time, effort and skill required to make such an expressive and prolific collection.
My partner Suguru, an avid mountain climber, had this to say; “His Yama Otoko prints are very creative, almost like cubism. But with the mountain landscapes, they pick up certain features which help me clearly recognize which mountain he is drawing. I think for me this shows what a skillful artist he was.”
Bijutsukan e Ikō (Let’s got to an art gallery) – Masako Itō, 2018. ISBN: 978-4-10-313874-7
(Azechi Umetaro Hanga-shū “Yama Otoko”/Azechi Umetaro Print Collection “Man of the Mountains”)ISBN：978-4-635-77015-6
Note: Photos were not permitted inside Atelier U, so some pictures come from Bijutsukan e Ikō, listed above.