Shin-Hanga -“Realist” Japanese Prints

Top: Hokusai, 1833. Bottom: Yoshida, 1926. Can you notice some differences between ukiyo-e and shin-hanga?

The name shin-hanga literally means “new prints” or “new images.” This name marked a departure from the “ukiyo-e” prints that had already become a high art form in Japan. Ukiyo-e, or traditional Japanese woodblock prints, had been being created for centuries and over time had become highly stylized. With social and political upheaval and a drive to break from the past, the popularity of ukiyo-e declined during the late 19th century. The shin-hanga style developed to fill this vacuum in the early 20th century.

The two images above show the differences between ukiyo-e and shin-hanga. The ukiyo-e print (top) has an extremely flat appearance. Everything is flat, from the colours, to the surface of the water. Perspective is created by altering the size of objects, but the image remains two-dimensional because the colours are so uniform. However, the shin-hanga print (bottom) shows a scene with depth. The use of colour helps us to get a sense of light, shadow and distance, while the little ship lost in the mists to the back left reinforces this sense of perspective.  The water is in motion, and the scene has a sense of realism.

Following the opening of Japan to the West by America in 1854, an influx of Western culture and outpouring of Japanese arts and crafts led artists in Japan and Europe to actively incorporate these new influences into their works. Following this trend, shin-hanga artists embraced Western-style realism, while European artists such as Vincent Van Gough borrowed from Japanese compositions. Print artists in Japan began producing work which spanned the conventions of ukiyo-e prints and Western landscape painting. This included depicting traditional subjects in modern ways, while the use of colour to represent mists or shadows evoked a feeling of distance and perspective absent from traditional ukiyo-e works. There was also an attention to light and its effect on objects, like that found in impressionism.

Morning Mist at the Taj Mahal No. 5 – Hiroshi Yoshida, 1932

Hiroshi Yoshida (1876 – 1950) was one of the most notable shin-hanga artists, renowned for his stunning landscapes and beautifully colourful mountain scenes. He was trained in Western-style oil painting in Japan, and traveled widely. His art was known for its occasionally non-Japanese subject matter, which included images such as the Taj Mahal of India. His works use haze and softening of colour to depict distance in a natural manner, a technique which differentiates shin-hanga from previous ukiyo-e styles.

The shin-hanga movement reached its peak between 1915 and 1942, spanning much of the Taishō (1912 – 1926) and Shōwa Eras (1926 – 1989). The prints were primarily produced for foreign markets. They fulfilled the Western desire for romanticized images of Japan and its landscapes. Their popularity abroad was fueled by articles on shin-hanga appearing in Art News and Art Digest magazines in the 1920s. However, this art form gained less traction in Japan, and the medium struggled.

Moon at Magome – Hasui Kawase, 1930

Although this movement was interrupted by WWII and never returned to its pre-war levels, it did continue in a small way in the 1950s and 1960s. This in turn laid the ground work for the adoption of wood block printing by later artists, such as Azechi Umetarō.

I enjoy shin-hanga because they show the adoption of western elements in a traditionally Japanese medium. They are an example of artists looking outward and seeking to incorporate elements from other cultures and traditions into their own art form. We often hear about the influence of Japanese prints on the impressionist painters, or the influence of Japanese aesthetics on western architecture design or philosophy, but shin-hanga is an example of influence working the other way. It’s very interesting for me, and I hope it is for you, too.


Top Images:
Tsurugizan-Morning – Hiroshi Yoshida, 1926
Yodo-gawa from Setsugekka, Snow, Moon and Flowers – Katsushika Hokusai, 1833 via Wikimedia Commons
Sailingboats-Morning – Hiroshi Yoshida, 1926 (東京美術、2018)

References (all accessed October 2018):
新版画作品集 なつかしい風景への旅 – 西山純子(東京美術、2018)