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Biography: TAGAWA Ken (田川憲)

Tagawa Ken photo
Tagawa Ken

"Ken Tagawa" signature in the block
with "Tagawa" (田川) artist seal



Shokosai hosoban 1797Tagawa Ken (田川憲 1906-1967), whose given name was Ken-ichi (憲一), was born in Nagasaki and graduated from the Nagasaki Business School in 1924. He moved to Tokyo, where in 1927 he met Onchi Kôshirô, who inspired him to learn woodblock printing. Also in Tokyo, he studied drawing and oil painting at the Kawabata Gagakkô ni Nyûgaku (Kawabata Painting School: 川端画学校に入学) starting in 1928. He made his first woodblock prints in 1932. Then, in 1934, Tagawa returned to Nagasaki, where he had his first solo exhibition of prints at the Nagasaki-kenritsu Nagasaki Toshokan (Nagasaki Prefectural Nagasaki Library: 長崎県立長崎図書館), published a collection of prints called Shinpan Nagasaki fûkei (Newly published views of Nagasaki: 新板長崎風景 see below), and founded the Hanga Nagasaki no Kai (Nagasaki Print Association: 版画長崎の会). He was also directly involved in establishing and publishing Hanga Nagasaki (Nagasaki Prints: 版畫長崎), which appeared in February to August 1935, and then, after a long hiatus, the art magazine was resurrected from July 1953 to January 1963 in six additional issues, featuring self-carved, self-printed prints from several artists.

In 1941 Tagawa joined the Nihon Hanga Kyôkai (Japan Print Association: 日本洋画協会). During the war, while stationed in China as a military painter in 1941-42, where he again established a print society, the Shanai Hanga Kyôkai (Shanghai Print Association: 上海版画協会) as well as the Shanhai Hanga Kenkyûjo (Shanghai Print Research Institute: 上海版画研究所). He also published a private Shanghai hanga magazine Ken Tagawa・Mokkoku shôhôryû (Tagawa Ken's Small Bulletin of Woodcuts: 田川憲・木刻小報龍). It was also at this time that he dropped the "ichi" from his given name and began using "Ken" in his art signatures. In 1945 he returned to Japan, but his ship drifted perilously in the East China Sea for sixteen days and he lost all of his sketches and prints. He first settled in Fukue City, Goto, then Yamaga in Kumamoto Prefecture, and finally Nagasaki in 1949, determined to restart his artistic endeavors.

The port city of Nagasaki had engaged in commerce with the West since the sixteenth century, first with the Portuguese, and then with the Dutch, before Japan was forced to open its borders in the 1850s under the so-called "gunboat diplomacy." Having been born and raised in Nagasaki, Tagawa's style and subject matter were influenced by the sensitivities of that city. Although he was a sôsaku hanga artist who was well aware of, and sometimes directly involved in, the creative art movement centered in Tokyo, he was also a printmaker whose subject matter was driven in large part by the particular history and cultural exchanges between Nagasaki and the West.

After the war, Tagawa became an advocate for the preservation of western-style houses and settlements in Nagasaki, but to his great regret, those sites continued to disappear or remained under threat of being demolished. His mission then became the production of prints portraying Nagasaki as a way of preserving the appearance of these settlements as an historical record. Many of his images were infused with a nostalgic, even sad mood, such as would affect a preservationist looking back on the old, lost Nagasaki. The modernist-realism in these works, often executed with a dark, narrow-range of colors, was an effective mode for Tagawa's emotional response to the foreign influence in Nagasaki. There is a brooding stillness in the views of this type. The image at the top right, Ijinkan no entotsu (Chimneys of a foreign mansion: 異人館の烟突) from 1958, exemplifies Tagawa's approach to printmaking during the 1940s-1950s. In his final decade, Tagwa's palette did brighten, although the primary theme remained the foreign presence in his beloved Nagasaki.

In 1956 Tagawa received the Nagasaki Ken Kôrôshô (Nagasaki Distinguished Service award: 長崎県功労章). The newspaper Nagasaki Shinbun (長崎新聞) awarded him the Kaibun Kaaki (First Cultural Seal: 回文化章) in 1960. Not long after his death, a retrospective exhibition of Tagawa's works was held in 1969 at the Nagasaki Prefectural Museum of Art (長崎県美術館). Recently, from Jan. 27 to April 8, 2018, the museum again held a major exhibition, this time commemorating the Fiftieth anniversary of his death, titled Tagawa Ken: Nagasaki ni okeru sôsaku hanga no paionia ("Tagawa Ken: Pioneer of Creative Prints in Nagasaki": 長崎における創作版画のパイオニア).

Works by Tagawa Ken can be found in various public institutions, including the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; Honolulu Museum of Art; and Nagasaki Prefectural Museum of Art.

The contents of this page are based on John Fiorillo's web page about Tagawa Ken: