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Biography: KAWANISHI Hide (川西英)

Kawanishi Hide self-portrait 1951
Kawanishi Hide self-portrait from 1951
Woodcut 480 x 328 mm




Kawanishi Hide signatureKawanishi 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 the 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 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, 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 (possibly as many as 1,000), as well as 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 that was certainly unusual for a sôsaku hanga artist. 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.

Kawanishi Hide view of kobe harborPerhaps no subject is more closely identified with Kawanishi Hide than scenes in and around Kobe Harbor, including views of the city's annual harbor festival. After the Second World War his designs took a slight turn toward abstraction, dispensing with waves or identifiable waterfront or hillside landmarks. Buildings and ships tended to blend even more than before, and no well-known structures appear in the views. There are also some fine views of gardens and ponds in Kawanishi's oeuvre.

Living in an open port city primed Kawanishi for a love of all things foreign. He was fascinated by foreign circuses, although not so with the traditional Japanese circus. As early as 1918, he visited a hippodrome virus 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.

Although Kawanishi sometimes signed his name in roman characters in pencil, most often he used only his combined printed signature and seal, each reading "Hide" (英), as in the image top right. Occasionally, both the printed and pencil signatures appear on a print.

The information on this page is adapted from John Fiorillo's Kawanishi Hide web page: