National Museum of American Art

Washington, D.C.

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Woodcuts by Hiratsuka: A Master in Our Midst

May 14 - September 12, 1999

After a distinguished career as one of Japan's leading twentieth-century printmakers, Un'ichi Hiratsuka (1895-1997) moved to Washington, D.C., in 1962, where he lived with his daughter for the next thirty-three years. He continued making prints well into his nineties, turning to scenes of Washington and other American locales as well as those of his homeland.

Well known for his landscapes of specific sites and images of monuments and temples, Hiratsuka also depicted the human figure, especially female nudes, throughout his career. By the time of his death at the age of 102, he had been honored with some of the highest accolades possible for an artist: he was designated a Sacred Treasure by the Japanese emperor, and a Hiratsuka museum was established in Suzaka-shi, Nagano-ken, Japan, near the artist's birthplace, Matsue.

Hiratsuka was a dominant figure in Japan's creative print movement. Traditional Japanese woodcuts involved many artisans in the process of cutting and printing woodblocks, but by the early twentieth century, printmaking had lost stature in Japan. Hiratsuka was in the forefront of artists seeking to reestablish its prestige in art schools and exhibitions. He believed that artists should maintain complete control over their own work by executing every aspect of it. By 1955, more than three hundred artists were associated with the movement. Hiratsuka was able to support himself and his family through the sale of his art, in spite of being warned as a young artist not to count on making a living as a printmaker.

Hiratsuka's prints are compelling in their seamless merging of Eastern and Western traditions to create a distinctive form of expression. Although he created color woodcuts, Hiratsuka is best known for his bold black-and-white images inspired by Japanese Buddhist prints of the medieval period. At times his images verge on abstraction. Un'ichi Hiratsuka created an eloquent hybrid style of printmaking, combining traditional Japanese design principles and woodcutting techniques with aspects of European modernism. During his years in the United States, his work attracted a devoted following that appreciated his unique contribution to contemporary printmaking.

The exhibition is made possible by support from the Hakuta Family.

Images from top to bottom and from left to right within rows: Woman with a Shawl (Portrait of Artist's Wife), 1923, color print, 11 1/2 x 8 1/2 inches, Private Collection; Kyoto Garden, 1961, woodcut, 32 x 40 inches, Private Collection; Nude with Tenpyo Roof Tile, 1973, woodcut, 38 1/2 x 30 1/2 inches, Private Collection; Stepping Stones at Isui-en Garden, Nara in the Afternoon, 1960, woodcut, 36 l/2 x 27 inches, Private Collection; Lincoln Memorial in the Fall, 1975. woodcut, 25 x 371/4 inches, Lent by the Hakuta Family; Key Bridge in Winter, 1966, woodcut, 14 x 18 1/4 inches, National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Museum purchase; Combing Hair, 1918, wood engraving, 18 x 13 inches, Private Collection; Library of Congress, Washington, D. C., 1966, woodcut, 33 1/2 x 24 1/4 inches, Private Collection; Buddha with Clouds, 1957, wood cut, 41 x 58 inches, Lent by the Hakuta Family.

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