Kawanishi Hide (川西英), 1894-1965, whose given name was Hideo, was born and worked in Kobe, an international port city that inspired much of his subject matter. He was employed as a postmaster, but his ancestors were merchants, particularly traders in several alcoholic spirits, sake (酒 or nihonshu 日本酒), mirin (味醂), and shôchû (焼酎), which they transported to Tokyo in their fleet of ships. Kawanishi's family opposed his becoming involved in painting and printmaking. A self-taught artist, Kawanishi started painting in oils, but turned to woodblock printmaking after seeing a print by Yamamoto Kanae (A small bay in Brittany) displayed in a shop window in Osaka. He was not interested in ukiyo-e, although Nagasaki-e naturally fascinated him, with its exotic ships and foreign traders. Gradually abandoning oils, Kawanishi fell under the influence of the Art Deco poster style of the 1920s and first exhibited prints in 1923 with the Nihon Sôsaku Hanga Kyôkai (Japan Creative Print Association 日本創作版画協会 founded 1918). Other influences were Onchi Kôshirô, Yamamoto, and European artists such as Lautrec, Gaugin, Van Gogh, Leger, and Matisse.
Kawanishi used poster colors and sumi (Japanese carbon black, i.e., soot, water, and glue), cutting his blocks with a curved chisel to obtain soft edges. He used katsura or ho wood, and printed on hodomura paper. He produced a large number of single-sheet designs (more than 1,200), some included in printed albums and books, and sets or series. The latter included Shôwa bijin fûzoku jûnitai (Twelve customs of beauties from the Shôwa era), 1929; Kobe jûnigagetsu fûkei (Scenes of Kobe during the twelve months), 1931; and Hanga Kobe hyakkei (Prints of one hundred views of Kobe), 1935. Kawanishi was awarded the Hyôgo Prefecture Culture Prize (1949) and the Kobe Shinbun Peace Prize (1962). His son Kawanishi Yûzaburô (1923-2014) worked in his father's style, but with more international subjects.
Kawanishi recorded (seemingly) all of his designs in notebooks. These works total 1,227, although some of the catalogued designs lack dates or have the same titles as others, making it difficult to match up all his known prints with titles. Still, the number represents a good estimate of his prolific output. Further complicating matters is the lack of edition numbers, leaving researchers to guess at how many impressions of a given design might have been printed, whether self-printed or produced by artisans. Kawanishi's designs were made without keyblock lines, as he printed only with color blocks. His self-printed works were made in an expressive style with softer edges to the color areas and shapes, whereas impressions made by artisans working for publishers, or later those done by his son Yûsaburô, have sharper or more well-defined edges, giving the designs a more controlled appearance.
Note: There is some confusion about how some of Kawanishi's books were produced, but the following seems to be the actual story regarding three publications in particular. Our source is Kanai Noriko, curator, Kobe City Museum (Kôbe-shiritsu Hakubutsukan: 神戸市立博物館), who is the world’s authority on the works of Kawanishi Hide. In 1934, Kawanishi teamed up with the Tokyo publisher Hanga Sô to produce three books: two on the circus theme and one on the opera "Carmen." Operated by Hirai Hiroshi, the small publishing firm Hanga Sô was in business from 1/1933 to 9/1936, specializing in limited-edition books from blocks carved by sôsaku-hanga artists. The blocks were carved and proofed in Kawanishi's atelier in Kobe, but were then sent to Tokyo and printed on paper derived from the cores of industrial paper cylinders by means of a novel type of machine press (using Kawanishi's blocks). The press was housed in a trade school now known as the Tokyo Institute of Technology, and was operated by their technician. Thus, contrary to what has been written in other sources, the images in these three books, while self-carved, were not self-printed by the artist. The current volume was the second of the circus books. It used more colors and was thus more costly to produce, which required pricing that impeded sales when first released. Today, of course, Kawanishi's circus-themed books and images are quite sought after by collectors.
This design appears to have been self-printed by Kawanishi and should not be confused with the version that appeared a year later in the book Hanga ehon sakasu (Picture book of circus prints: 版画絵本サーカス) published by Hanga Sô, Ginza, Tokyo (operated by Hirai Hiroshi).
Kawanishi was fascinated by foreign circuses, although not so with the traditonal Japanese circus. As early as 1918, he visited a hippodrome cirus and afterward made oil paintings of acrobats, horses, elephants, and other related subjects. He loved the gathering of so many foreign visitors and the strange animals. He first saw a lion at just such a circus, which he later referred to as the "Chiarini Circus," a term once used by the Japanese for any foreign circus, but taken from a much earlier circus run by Giuseppe Chiarini (1823-97), which toured Japan in 1886 and 1889. Kawanishi once said (see D'Orlando ref. below), "When you entered the tent, the smell of the animals, the smell of the circus, would merge into one. My heart captured everything moving before my eyes: the red robe of the anumal trainer, with the golden decorations glitterng in the light."
Kawanishi's renderings of equestrian riders, clowns, acrobats, trapeze artists, lion tamers, seal trainers, and elephant trainers capture the spectacle of the circus in a colorful and playful manner. Kawanishi's fascination with the circus world and his woodcuts detailing the various entertainments, although built upon a different aesthetic, remind us of the American artist Alexander Calder's (1898-1976) line drawings and lithographs on the same themes. Both artists expressed a childlike joy and excitement about the marvels to be witnessed in a circus.
- D'Orlando, A., de Vries, M, Uhlenbeck, C. and Wessels, E.: Nostalgia dn Modernity: The Styles of Komura Settai and Kawanishi Hide. Amsterdam: Nihon no Hanga, spring 2012 (exhibition cat.).
- Kawanishi Hide, Gashû "Kôbe hyakkei" Kawanishi Hide ga aishita fûkei (Collected pictures, "100 Scenes of Kobe," favorite scenes of Kawanishi Hide: 画集『神戸百景』川西英が愛した風景), 2008.
- Kobe City Koiso Memorial Museum of Art: (Kawanishi Hide, the retrospective. 120th anniversary of his birth (Kobe shiritsu Koiso kinen bijutsukan (神戸市立小磯記念美術館), Kawanishi hide kaiko ten --- Seitan ichihyakunijû nen (川西回顧展 生誕120年). Kobe: 2014, p. 54, no. 46.
- Uhlenbeck, C., Newland, A.R., de Vries, M.: Waves of renewal: modern Japanese prints, 1900 to 1960, Selections from the Nihon no hanga collections, Amsterdam. Hotei Publishing, 2016, pp. 240-246.