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 Takehisa Yumeji (竹久夢二), Onchi Kôshirô (恩地孝四郎), Yamamoto Kanae (山本鼎), 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 two types of fine-grained wood for his blocks: katsura (Judas tree: 桂) and ho (magnolia: 朴), and printed on hodomura (程村) 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.
Here we have another of Kawanishi's beloved scenes of Kobe harbor. After the Second World War, his designs took a slight turn toward abstraction, dispensing with realistic waves or identifiable waterfront or hillside landmarks. Buildings and ships tended to blend even more than before, and often no well-known structures appear in the views. Note the straight-out-of-the-tube intensity of the poster colors, with no gradations, and the simplification of forms — all hallmarks of the Kawanishi's printmaking style.
Frequently, when parsing Kawanishi's scenes, certain details present themselves as unusual (for him) observations of Kobe port life. Kawanishi loved this harbor and depicted views of its docks and ships dozens of times. Typically, the foreground elements, viewed from different angles, are limited to large ships or small boats at anchor, buoys, and even seagulls. Here, however, we see, on the left, three young women at the deck-railing as the ship sails into port, As far as we know, this is the only example of a Kawanishi design with people depicted on the deck of a ship. Notable, too, is the unusual curvature of the ship, "bending" toward the right as if it were affected by spherical distortion near the edges of the visual field, producing a dramatic effect of receding perspective toward the far shore. The nearly parallel but slightly converging patches of stylized black, white, and blue waves also lends an effect of movement in the same direction. Meanwhile, the clustered houses in the middle distance enjoy a rhythm of variable heights, widths, colors, and juxtapositions that avoid stasis and enliven the view.
This large-format design does not seem to appear in any of the standard Kawanishi Hide reference works. Moreover, the pencil signature makes this an especially desirable impression, as it guarantees a self-printing by Kawanishi.
The print comes with the original title slip (Kobe, 神戸 see image at right). The vertical inscription along the right side of the title slip reads: Kawanishi Hide jiga jikoku jizuri hanga (Kawanishi Hide, self-drawn, self-carved, self-printed block print: 川西英 • 自画 • 自刻 • 自摺 • 版画). Besides confirming that Kawanishi was involved in all aspects of creating this harbor scene, the terms "jiga-jikoku-jizuri" expressed the credo of the sôsaku hanga movement, distinguishing its artists from shin hanga and ukiyo-e practitioners who supplied sketches (or paintings) to their publishers but did not carve or print their own designs.
- D'Orlando, A., de Vries, M, Uhlenbeck, C. and Wessels, E.: Nostalgia and Modernity: The Styles of Komura Settai and Kawanishi Hide. Amsterdam: Nihin no Hnaga, 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.
- 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.