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Biography: ONCHI Kôshirô (恩地孝四郎)

Onchi 1946 suwa nejiko
Onchi's portrait of Suwa Nejiko, 1946
"Impression of a violinist"
(printed by the artist c. early 1950s)
Shown here slightly cropped


Onchi sig seal on folder
Detail of folder for Onchi's portrait of Suwa Nejiko
"Impression of a violinist" 1946 (shown above)
Seal, brushed-in signature, title applied by artist

Photo of Onchi holding print suwa nejikoOnchi Kôshirô (恩地孝四郎 1891-1955) — innovative, independent, and charismatic — was a central figure in twentieth-century Japanese printmaking. Onchi's experimentation in sôsaku hanga ("creative prints": 創作版画) inspired several generations of artists. Perhaps more than anyone else, it was Onchi who identified the principle of self-carving and self-printing as essential to the sôsaku hanga artist. The printmaker Yamaguchi Gen once said, "Onchi was a vital artist ... he had the inspiration and passion of a great artist. He was the embodiment of modern hanga in Japan and our ambassador to the rest of the world. He was heart and mind, and how we miss him!"

Onchi was raised and educated within an aristocratic family, the son of a high-ranking official of the Imperial Court who was a painter, calligrapher, and scholar of Chinese studies. Later, Onchi attended a Japanese-German middle school in preparation for a career in medicine. His knowledge of German provided him with more direct access to early twentieth-century Western art. Onchi identified such painters and printmakers as Wassily (Vasily) Kandinsky (1866-1944) and Edvard Munch (1863-1944), among others, as important early influences. Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) was also an artist he admired. Onchi seems to have rarely, if ever, copied these Western painters and printmakers explicitly, but rather to have assimilated their compositional styles as he developed his personal approaches toward design and technique. Among Japanese influences, the artist Takehisa Yumeji (竹久夢二 1884-1934) was particularly important in the earliest years of Onchi's career, and in the non-visual arts, the poets Kitahara Hakashû (北原白秋 1885-1942) and Hagiwara Sakutarô (萩原朔太郎 1886-1942), and the musician-composer Yamada Kôsaku (山田耕筰 Kôsçak, 1886-1965).

While enrolled in the Tokyo Bijutsu Gakko Tokyo (School of Fine Arts: 東京美術学校) in 1910 and engaged in Western-style oil painting and sculpture, Onchi quickly rebelled against the dry academic philosophy he encountered there and dropped out after only four months into his second year. His first professional work came in 1911 as a book illustrator and designer, encouraged and assisted by Takehisa Yumeji.

Beginning in October 1913, Onchi, along with two artist-friends, Fujimori Shizuo (藤森静雄 1891-1943) and Tanaka Kyôkichi (田中恭吉 1892–1915), founded a poetry and print magazine called Tsukuhae ("Reflection of the Moon" or "Moonglow": 月映) that featured both figurative and abstract prints. They called themselves Eishôsai no saning ("Three men of the smile school": 微笑派の三人), parodying the many artists' groups and associations that dominated the official art world. Initially, the young artists exchanged self-printed copies of their designs, gave away a few others as gifts, and sold a very small number of impressions. However, in 1914 Kawamoto Kamenosuke, the proprietor of the Rakuyôdôkan, agreed to publish impressions by subscription (Takehisa Yumeji was partly influential in this decision, having vouched for the quality of the prints by the young artists). There were seven published issues in all, from September 1914 to May 1915. The first issue is said to have been published in 200 copies, but sales were very poor. Later editions became increasingly smaller, although it is difficult to estimate just how many copies of each issue were ever printed for public distribution or how many were actually sold. In subsequent years, certain designs by Fujimori and Onchi were self-printed in very small numbers. Complete copies of any complete edition remain exceedingly rare today. In the published Tsukuhae series, the prints were made not by hand-rubbing the back of the paper with a baren, but with a technique called mokuhan kikai zuri (木版機械摺) or "machine woodblock printing" — a process using woodblocks mounted in a printing press that exerts uniform high pressure to take up the colors from the carved blocks. The colorants were oil-based inks and the paper had a waxy surface quality. Over its seven issues, Tsukubae presented a youthful expression of Taishô-period romanticism and angst. Onchi wrote, self-critically, that, "It's thought and feelings were adolescent and its expressions immature." Even so, many of the designs are assertive and memorable. Most notably, issue no. 5 (March 1915) included Onchi's seminal work titled "Lyric: Clear Hours" or "Lyric: Bright time" (Lyric, Akarui toki: 抒情あかるい時), considered today to be the first wholly abstract print ever published in Japan. Onchi's daughter, Mioko [Mihoko], claimed that her father had been making abstract prints since 1910, but whichever designs those might have been, they were not published.

In the 1930s Onchi produced a series of small-format abstract designs intended to express his emotional responses to classical music. In Lyrique No. 2: Lyrics on Musical Compositions (Lyrique No. 2: Gakkyoku ni yoseru jojô: 楽曲に寄せる抒情), Onchi constructed at least nine works unified by a distinctive visual language of forms and colors, which he printed in an emotive, expressionist style. The series proved to be a seminal development in establishing abstraction as a modernist printmaking mode in Japan. Onchi admired a great deal of early twentieth-century Western classical music, and the composers who inspired Onchi for his music series were Bartok, Borodin, Debussy, Ravel, Satie, Scriabin, and Stravinsky, plus the Western-style Japanese composers Moroi Saburô and Yamada Kôsaku. Furthermore, Onchi's use of the title "lyriques" in various series on non-musical themes heralded further exploration into the expression of subjective feelings. Emotion was paramount. Similarly, he used "impromptu" in some titles, which was often meant to convey a feeling of spontaneity.

Onchi employed a varied and sophisticated approach to design, exploring figurative, abstract, and symbolic imagery through traditional and experimental techniques, both Japanese and Western. He was an excellent draftsman in the realistic manner. For example, his celebrated portrait of the aforementioned poet Hagiwara Sakutarô marked the zenith in the development of a new expressive method of soft-edge carving with a curved chisel to depict the human figure in the woodcut medium. Onchi created, as well, a style of figurative abstraction, the most important example being his portrayal of the Japanese violinist Suwa Nejiko (諏訪根自子像 1920-2012) as she performed before an audience of Allied Occupation soldiers in 1946 (see the images of two different impressions of this design at the top of this page).

Given Onchi's great achievements in single-sheet prints, observers sometimes ignore how significant book design was to Onchi's livelihood and aesthetic development. Onchi's contribution to the art of the book in Japan was seminal. He is credited with the design of at least 1,000 book covers/bindings, and illustrated books and their entire contents, not to mention sheet-music covers, posters, and other ephemera. (His daughter Mioko once reported that her father designed over 2,000 books, but whether that figure comes from a rigorous compilation of data is not known.) Perhaps most important, Onchi more or less invented avant-garde book design in Japan. Central to Onchi's eminence as a book designer was Hikô kannô (Sensations of flying: 飛行官能), published in 1934 by Hangasô (版畫荘) in Tokyo. It genesis was Onchi's first airplane flight on July 24, 1927, from Tokyo to Kyushu. Onchi was accompanied by Kitahara Tetsuo (北原鉄雄 1889-1957), later the founding editor in 1941 of Shashin bunka (Photography Culture: 写真文化) and brother of the aforementioned poet Kitahara Hakushû. Onchi was commissioned by the Osaka Asahi Shinbun (Osaka Morning-Sun Newspaper: 大阪朝日新聞) to design illustrations for a series of articles by Kitahara on flight. Seven years later, Hikô kannô was published commercially, for which Onchi designed the woodcuts, block-printed covers, and page layouts; he also selected the photographs and composed the verses. All told, there were 32 unnumbered pages, printed by Karikome Minoru in double-page layouts with one to three poems for each spread along with their accompanying graphic designs. Onchi combined prints, photographs, typography, and poetry to create a unified expression of each theme. The roots of Hikô kannô were in the tradition of bookmaking that was ushered in by El Lissitsky (1890-1941 Russian artist, designer, photographer, typographer, polemicist, and architect) and the Russian Constructivists. and carried on by Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946 Hungarian painter/photographer) and the Bauhaus during the 1920s.

As mentioned, Onchi's interest in abstract art was evident early in his career, first evident from some of his contributions to the aforementioned Tsukuhae as well as to Gakkyoku ni yoseru jojô (Lyrics on music compositions). During the last 15 years of his life, abstraction became central to Onchi's oeuvre. He believed that the purpose of art was the expression of an artist's subjective experience. He was not interested in merely replicating an image from a set of blocks. Consequenty, he self-printed very few numbered editions. Onchi viewed woodblock prints as distinctive pictures produced by carving, their essence coming from the special quality and process of using blocks to impart shapes and colors on paper. For Onchi, this meant an opportunity for experimentation and variation. In some instances Onchi made only one or two proofs from his blocks; if the result was what he wanted, he printed no more. His daughter Mioko once said, "Father always says he'll make more copies for the people who come here pestering us for prints. But he never does."

Onchi's signatures and seals

Most of Onchi's printed works (as well as many paintings, drawings, and watercolors) were not signed, but when he bothered to apply a signature, it would sometimes take the form of "K. Onzi" in pencil (for works on paper) and brushed in for prints or paintings, using an alternate romanization for "Onchi" (see below). On a few designs, Onchi used embossed signatures, such as "K. Onchi" (second example below) or simply "Ko." Most often however, if his name appears on a print, it was stamped "ONZI" (see third example below). This stamp also appears on posthumous impressions printed by, for example, his son Onchi Kunio (恩地邦郎) or Hirai Kôichi (平井孝一 or 平井孝市), so care must be taken not to rely on the signature stamp as an indicator of an impression printed by the artist. Rarely, Onchi would use cursive script either in ink (see the second image at upper left of this page or the fourth example below).

Pencil signature "K. Onzi" (1951) from a a self-printed design titled "Young generation" (Wakai sedai, 若い世代)
Embossed signature "K. Onchi" and edition number (7/30) from a 1932 self-printed design ("Borodin") in Onchi's music composition series
Signature stamp "ONZI" used on many prints (this example from a self-printed 1933 design "Stravinsky" in Onchi's music composition series)
Brush signature in cursive Japanese from a self-printed design of Mt. Fuji (1945)

Note: The text given on this web page is adapted from John Fiorillo's summary on Onchi: