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Biography: HIRATSUKA Un'ichi (平塚運一)

Hiratsuka Unichi photo
Hiratsuka Un'ichi holding an impression of
"Stone Bridge over the C and O Canal,
Washington, D.C.," 1962

Hiratsuka Unichi signature


Hiratsuka Unichi rakan templeHiratsuka Un'ichi (平塚運一 1895-1997), one of the pre-eminent figures in the sôsaku hanga (creative prints: 創作版画) movement, was born in Matsue, Honshû. Hiratsuka's grandfather was an architect who designed houses and temples, and his father was a shrine carpenter, so Hiratsuka was introduced to wood-working and architecture while still a young boy. In 1913 he met the artist Ishii Hakutei (1882-1958), a western-style painter and printmaker who had published what is considered the first sôsaku hanga print (Yamamoto Kanae's "Fisherman") in the magazine Myôjô (Morning Star: 明星) in 1904. Ishii admired Hiratsuka's painting, and in 1915 the younger artist moved to Tokyo to continue his study with Ishii, who urged him to learn block carving and printing. He did so for about six months with Igami Bonkotsu (伊上凡骨 1875-1933), becoming the best-trained block carver in the sôsaku hanga movement. Hiratsuka exhibited his first prints in 1916 at an exhibition of the independent Nika-kai ("Second Division Society"), and by the 1920s his reputation in the world of printmaking was considerable.

It is likely that Hiratsuka had some influence upon nearly every important second-generation sôsaku hanga artist. He published the book Hanga no gihô (Printmaking techniques: 版画の技法) in 1927, from which many artists first learned about how to produce creative prints. He taught sessions on woodblock printing in various parts of Japan, inspiring, among many students, the great Munakata Shikô, who learned to use the v-shaped chisel from Hiratsuka when they first met in 1928. During the 1930s he led an informal group of artists, the so-called Yoyogi-ha (Yoyogi clique: 代々木派), who gathered at his house in the Yoyogi district of Tokyo. Between 1935 and 1944 Hiratsuka taught the first hanga (blockprinting: 版画) course at the Tokyo Bijutsu Gakkô (Tokyo School of Fine Arts: 東京美術学校), where Fumio Kitaoka and Okiie Hashimoto were among his students. In 1948 he established his own school in Tokyo. He moved to Washington, D.C. in 1962 (see woodblock print on left, carved the same year), but ultimately returned to Japan in 1994. Hiratsuka was awarded the Order of Cultural Merit by the Japanese government in 1970, and in 1991, the Hiratsuka Un'ichi Print Museum was opened in Suzaka, Nagano Prefecture.

Hiratsuka's daughter, Keiko Hiratsuka Moore, reported that her father considered the dating and numbering of his prints to be a nuisance, a practice expected by Western collectors, but not one that was compatible with his own views. At times, Hiratsuka, perhaps mischievously, randomly numbered some impressions or made up the size of editions. Thus, we are faced with the possibility that impressions of Hiratsuka's prints may occasionally have misleading edition numbers. She also said that, typically, her father rarely made more than a dozen or so of most of his designs. In contrast, Oliver Statler, who interviewed Hiratsuka, wrote in the mid-1950s that Hiratsuka's editions typically ran between 30 and 50 impressions. There are certainly known exceptions, such as one image of Saint Nichiren, intended for an edition of 10,000 in the manner of devotional Buddhist images (Hiratsuka was a serious collector of old Buddhist prints, some dating from the late Heian period, 898-1185); however, Hiratsuka managed "only" around 1,475 impressions. At the opposite end of the range, Hiratsuka's design of the Lincoln Memorial to commemorate the 1975 visit to the U.S. of the emperor and empress of Japan was made in a single impression for the exclusive possession of the Imperial household. Generally speaking, it appears that Hiratsuka often printed only as many copies of his works as were needed or requested over the years, so more research is needed to sort out the number of extant impressions for each of Hiratsuka's many designs.

Hiratsuka's oeuvre is best exemplified by his monochrome compositions printed with an intense, glossy sumi pigment, but he did some fine work in full colors as well. The view of a temple shown on the right, titled Ame no Yabakei, Rakan-ji (Rakan Temple at Yabakei in the rain: 雨の耶馬渓羅漢寺) from 1935 (375 x 325 mm), is one of his better known color prints. As for his sumi images, Hiratsuka believed that the combination of black and white had a special and challenging beauty. To be successful using only these two colors, an artist had to capture the rhythm of line and mass. White was not merely negative space, but a value equal to black, and each color had to harmonize with the other. To achieve this, Hiratsuka once said, "I make my black as intense as I can get it. My black ink is the very finest sumi from Kyoto, and I make impression after impression until the color seeps deep into the paper."

The information on this page is largely based on John Fiorillo's web page: