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Biography: KITAOKA Fumio (北岡文雄)

kitaoka_fumio self-portrait 1951
Kitaoka Fumio
Self-portrait, wood engraving, c. 1947

Kitaoka Fumio carved signature
Carved signature

Kitaoka Fumio pencil signature
Pencil signature




Kitaoka Fumio 1987 autumn in marshKitaoka Fumio (北岡文雄 1918-2007) studied printmaking with Hiratsuka Un'ichi at the Tokyo Bijutsu Gakko (Tokyo School of Fine Arts, 東京美術学校). Hiratsuka was one of the principal figures in the sôsaku hanga movement who, between 1935 and 1944, taught the first block-printing course at the school. Graduating during the Second World War, Kitaoka initially taught art in Tokyo, but in January 1945 he was stationed as an art instructor in occupied Manchuria. His experiences in China led to the social-realist series titled Sokaku e no tabi (Return to the home country: 祖国への旅) in 1947.

Kitaoka also became one of many disciples of Kôshirô Onchi, the seminal figure in abstract and experimental print design. While active within the Onchi circle, Kitaoka produced some abstract work and contributed designs to Ichimokushû (First Thursday Collection: 一木集) for issues IV to VI (plus the cover for IV, 1948), the important portfolios produced by the Ichimokukai (First Thursday Society: 一木会) headed by Onchi.

In the mid-60s, Kitaoka taught at the Minneapolis School of Art, where he was a Fulbright visiting professor (1964-65), and at the Pratt Graphic Arts Center in New York. Interviewed in the 1970s, Kitaoka said about his mid-career prints that, "I want to express through [my work] the profundity of nature and the feeling of eternity.... I feel that I should derive my creative activity from the deeper thoughts of the Orient, from a feeling that has its roots in Japanese nature and the Japanese way of living.... Form is meaningless without content, so I consider content more important.  However, it is true that content itself cannot make a work of art unless it has an appropriate form. Form may take precedence over content in the immature state of a work of art, but in a consummate work, form and content are absolutely inseparable and should blend together in a perfect unity."

From as early as 1939, Kitaoka worked in wood engraving, or what in Japanese is called itame mokuhan ("cross-grain" woodcut: 板目木版). He took further instruction in this and other techniques some years later when he attended the Ecole des Beaux Arts, Paris in 1955-56. Engraving involves cutting with graver tools against the end grain, unlike the Japanese ukiyo-e method of cutting with the grain. The lines are "engraved" or cut into (below) the surface, so that the effect is one of white lines on a dark background, in contrast to the Japanese method of cutting the wood away from the lines, leaving them in relief. The end-grain technique gave Kitaoka's early monochrome works a European flavor, although the subjects were Japanese.

Later in his career, Kitaoka began working in a more decorative style as he produced views of landscapes and rural scenes, as well as still life, often brightly colored with thickly applied pigments. The intensity of Kitaoka's colors in a strikingly higher key is very different from his earlier works. From at least the mid 1970s, Kitaoka produced various meisho (views of famous places: 名所) and other landscapes using a colorful palette and a pleasing picturesque style. Presumably, these designs appealed to both Japanese and foreign collectors. An example of this style is shown above, a design from 1987 titled Numa no aki ("Autumn in marsh": 沼の秋). It is a double-ôban (550 x 397 mm) from an edition of 120.

Works by Kitaoka are held in the the Art Gallery of New South Wales; Art Institute of Chicago; British Museum, London; Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; Honolulu Museum of Art; Japanese Museum of Israel; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Museum of Modern Art, New York; National Museum, Warsaw; National Museum of Asian Art, Smithsonian, Washington, DC; National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo; Philadelphia Museum of Art; Rhode Island School of Design, Providence; and Worchester Art Museum, MA. © 2021 by John Fiorillo

Information about this artist is based on John Fiorillo's Kitaoka Fumio web page: