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Biography: ISHII Hakutei (石井柏亭)

Ishii Hakutei
Ishii Hakutei
Painting at his easel

Signature: Hakutei Mankichi ga
Drawn by Mankichi Hakutei (柏亭満吉画)
Carver Seal: Bonkotsu
("knife of Bonkotsu": 凡骨刀)


Ishii Hakutei (石井柏亭 1882-1958), whose given name was Mankichi (満吉), was born in Shitaya, Tokyo, the son of the Nihonga (Japanese-style picture: 日本画) painter Ishii Teiko (石井鼎湖 1848-1897). His younger brother was the painter, sculptor, and printmaker Ishii Tsuruzô (石井鶴三 1887-1973). In 1895 Hakutei became a block-carving trainee at the Printing Bureau of the Finance Ministry. Then, in 1898, he studied with the pioneer yôga (Western-style painting: 洋画) artist Asai Chû (浅井忠 1856-1907). When Asai left for Europe in 1899, Ishii received further instruction from the yôga painter Nakamura Fusetsu (中村不折 1866-1943). In 1904, Ishii's final apprenticeship was in the department of yôga at the Tokyo Bijutsu Gakkô (Tokyo School of Fine Arts: 東京美術学校) under the leading yôga specialists Kuroda Seiki (黒田清輝 1866-1924) and Fujishima Takeji (藤島武二 1867-1943) where he enrolled for less than a year. Thus, Ishii had an unusually comprehensive introduction to Western painting. He was a member of Museikai ("Voiceless Society," 无声会 founded in 1901), exhibiting with them in 1903. This group of artists avowed the beauty of brushwork and naturalistic drawing technique as practiced in Western realism. He even experimented with Post-Impressionism as well as Aestheticism early in his career.

Ishii was a pivotal figure in sôsaku hanga ("creative prints": 創作版画). In 1904 he published in the dôjin zasshi (coterie magazine: 同人雑誌) Myôjô ("Morning star": 明星, 1900-1908) a woodcut that is widely acknowledged to be the first sôsaku hanga print — Gyofu (Fisherman: 漁夫) by Yamamoto Kanae (山本鼎 1882-1946). He also joined Yamamoto in founding the dôjin art magazine Hôsun ("One's Ideas" or "Square Inch," 方寸, 35 issues, 1907-11).

Also in Myôjô, Ishii published in February-April 1906 a three-part comprehensive article titled Kangakai no genjô o ronji awase sono shôrai ni oyoku (jô) ("Discourse on the Current State of the Art World and Its Future"). Ishii's commentary provided an in-depth history of yôga as well as a thorough review of the contemporary art scene. He pointed out vexing problems in artistic and institutional Nihonga and yôga (including stagnation and immaturity) and concluded with a proposal for a synthesis of the two modes of image-making in order to create a "new, perfect Japanese painting." His words reached a wide audience, as subscribers to Myôjô numbered more than 5,000 at the time. He espoused the concept of art for art's sake and promoted the artistic ideals formulated in the essays of James McNeil Whistler (1834-1903), even translating into Japanese the American artist's public lecture "Ten O'Clock" from 1885 and his book "The Gentle Art of Making Enemies" from 1890. He wrote extensively about European art and his experiences while living in Europe, reporting on the Fauve, Futurist, and Cubist exhibits he viewed there, as well as on the pioneering Russian abstract painter and art theorist Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) and the avant garde German/Russian Der Blaue Reiter group.

Furthermore, Ishii promoted sôsaku hanga through participation in several art and literary groups including the Pan no Kai (Pan Society: パンの会 circa 1908-1912), named after the Greek god of revelry and inspired by the German cultural periodical Pan. Its members were writers, poets, artists, and actors in Tokyo who gathered together on a regular basis. Meetings were informal affairs given over to discussing strategies for the reform and revitalization of Japanese art, literature, and theater, and to socializing over European food, wine, coffee, and music. The society played an important role by promoting wider knowledge of Western-style modernist art.

In 1910, Hakutei began designing a series of prints called Tokyo jûnikei (Twelve views of Tokyo: 東京十二景) that constitute the woodcuts for which he is best known. Each print features a geisha dressed in ordinary kimono situated in front of (and partly obscuring) a koma-e (inset picture: 駒絵). Each inset depicts a particular modern Tokyo district that is named on the print. This compositional device was likely derived from various nineteenth-century ukiyo-e prints incorporating koma-e. The first two designs, Yoshichô (よし町) and Yanagibashi (柳ばし), were completed in 1910 before Ishii traveled to Europe (he settled briefly in Paris in 1911). Another seven prints were published after his return to Japan in 1914, with the last two (Shibaura, 芝うら [芝浦] and Akasaka, 赤さか) probably done in 1916 or 1917. Thus, although twelve designs were planned, only nine were issued. It might have been that the combination of the traditional geisha with what were then modern scenes of Tokyo did not win over many customers, forcing the cancellation of the series. Not to be ignored was the ongoing global war that must have limited discretionary funds among the Japanese who might have been interested in acquiring art.

The series was produced in the shin hanga ("new prints": 新版画) fashion, with Ishii supplying the original sketches for artisans who carved and printed the images (which, presumably, he supervised). Ishii's friend, the highly skilled Igami Bonkotsu (伊上凡骨 1877-1933), carved the blocks and Nishimura Kumakichi (西村熊吉) printed at least the first two designs, Yoshichô (よし町) and Yanagibashi (柳ばし), and possibly the entire series. The first two works were published by the poet and sculptor Takamura Kôtarô (高村光太郎 1883-1956), who had studied in the U.S. and Europe (he became best friends with the noted and well-connected British studio potter and art teacher Bernard Leach, 1887-1979). Takamura was an enthusiastic supporter of sôsaku hanga and avant-garde European ideas. Yoshichô and Yanagibashi were issued through Takamura's ground-breaking picture gallery Rôkandô (琅玗洞) in 1910 (having opened that April, the Rôkandô was the first private multi-media modern art gallery in Japan). The remaining seven known print designs were published in 1914-17 by Nakajima Jûtarô (中島重太郎) for the firm Yanagiya Shoten (柳家書店, also called Seikadô 青果堂). Nakajima also published second editions of Yoshichô and Yanagibashi in 1914.

Posthumous editions were issued for all nine designs (100 sets?) circa mid-1980s by Ishukanko-kai (遺珠刊行会) in Tokyo. Each reproduction has extensive information about the publisher, carver, and printer inscribed in a wide margin, including the Ishukanko-kai red "money-bag" seal. These impressions were re-carved by Itô Susumu (伊藤進 1916-98) and printed by Watanabe Yoshiaki (渡辺義明).

It might seem odd to classify Ishii Hakutei as a sôsaku hanga artist, given that he only self-carved and self-printed one small woodcut (256 x 187 mm) — a scene of Tokyo's floating lumber yards at Kiba in 1914 (木場); see image at right, where the carving is straightforward and vigorous. Even though he had learned block carving, Ishii never chose to rely on his own skills in that regard. Instead, he engaged professional carvers to render his designs into woodcuts, or worked with publishers who did the same. Yet based on his involvement with various key sôsaku hanga developments (as described above) and his long-term dedication to that cause, he is rightly counted among the "creative print" artists.

For much of his career, Ishii concentrated on painting, exhibiting with the official government-sponsored salons or Bunten (Exhibition: 文展), shorthand for the Monbushô Bijutsu Tenrankai (Ministry of Education Fine Arts Exhibition: 文部省美術展覧会). He helped found an art association called the Nikakai (二科会) in 1914. He also exhibited works with the society, including a painting of the harbor at Naples, Italy, which showed at the Takenodai Exhibition Hall (竹之台陳列館) in Tokyo in September 1923. This painting reveals Ishii's familiarity with the oeuvre of the great French Post-Impressionist Paul Cézanne (1839-1906).

In 1935, Ishii withdrew from the Nikakai and joined the Teikoku Bijutsu-in (Imperial Fine Arts Academy: 帝国美術院), which in 1937 reorganized as the Teikoku Geijutsuin (Imperial Art Academy: 帝国芸術院). In 1947, the Academy became the Nihon Geijutsu-in (Japan Art Academy: 日本芸術院) and its annual exhibition was correspondingly renamed the Japan Arts Exhibition (日本美術展覧会, Nihon bijutsu tenrankai), which was abbreviated to Nitten (日展). Ishii contributed paintings to Nitten exhibitions and went on to become chief judge of the yôga section. He also served in a special advisory capacity after the introduction of the 1950 Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties.

In December 1958, just before his death, Ishii Hakutei was awarded with the Kyokujitsu-shô (Order of the Rising Sun: 旭日章), a national decoration established by the Emperor Meiji in 1875 and presented by the Japanese government.

The text provided here is based in large part on John Fiorillo's web page: