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An American in Tokyo
Patricia C. Brandes and the Sosaku Hanga Movement
In the 1950s Japan was rebuilding from the destruction of World War II, and a strong US military presence gave ample opportunity for Americans to see the country. But in an unusual twist one woman’s reason for joining the military was artistic. After seeing Japanese woodblock prints in her college town of Ellensburg, Washington, Patricia Cosper, (now Patricia C. Brandes) landed a job with the military teaching crafts at Camp Whittington, a US Army base in Japan. Inspired by seeing Japanese prints, she set herself the goal of studying with Japanese woodblock artists. It wasn’t long before she was regularly making the four hour train trip to study under Un’ichi Hiratsuka, one of the principle artists in a print movement then gaining worldwide recognition known as the Sosaku Hanga movement.
An exhibition of Patricia C. Brandes as artist and collector is currently on view at SF Online Arts. Brandes spent five years in the 1950s living, studying and showing in Japan. Her private collection represents more than forty artists associated with the Sosaku Hanga movement and is unique in having been assembled for personal use by an American artist deeply involved in the techniques and aesthetics of the movement. SF Online Arts is an actual and virtual gallery run by Larry Warnock at www.sfonlinearts.com and by appointment on 23rd Street in San Francisco.
Sosaku Hanga was a modernist print movement, which began in the early 20th century and reached international recognition in the 1950s. At that time most of the extremely long-lived Sosaku Hanga artists had reached their full development. The movement was an expression of Japanese artistic feeling as it began looking to Western influences. Although there were also stylistic borrowings from the West, a crucially important influence was the example of European artists who created and printed their own prints. In the earlier Ukiyoe tradition the printer was only a craftsman, carving and printing the designs of the artist, which meant that the printmaker was never the creator of his own imagery. The freedom to create and print ones own work was a liberating and powerful impulse for an artistic culture so involved in printmaking.
Un’ichi Hiratsuka, 1895 - 1997, was a central figure of the Sosaku Hanga movement. Hiratsuka was a dedicated teacher, working at the Tokyo Academy of Fine Arts before the war and teaching privately after that. He pushed for the teaching of woodcut printing as a discipline in the Academy for many years. In 1935 he achieved the recognition of woodcut as a fine art. In addition to pushing for the acceptance of printmaking in the Academy, Hiratsuka and others held monthly gatherings to offer encouragement to each other. They also organized regular group exhibitions. During the long pre-war years of obscurity these meetings and shows served as the focus holding the disparate artists of the movement together. Over the years Hiratsuka introduced many Japanese and foreign artists to the process of woodblock printing. His bold black and white style is immediately recognizable.
The most well known of the artists associated with this movement are Shiko Munakata 1903 - 1975, Kiyoshi Saito 1907- 1997, and Sadao Watanabe 1913 - 1996. Munakata, who won the Venice Biennale and the Sao Paolo Bienal in 1956, was reaching new heights of fame when Brandes met him. Her recollection of this ferocious artist, like that of many others, was of a man possessed. With eyesight so weak that he worked inches away from his huge blocks, he produced mural sized woodcuts. Kiyoshi Saito whose animal images became quite popular in the West in the 1950s, and Sadao Watanabe whose prints focused on Christian imagery, are examples of artists whose clear sighted artistic vision is complimented by a strong command of woodcut technique and an equally strong experimental approach to the print.
Other artists associated with the Sosaku Hanga represented in the collection of Patricia C. Brandes are Umetaro Azechi 1902 - 1999, Tomoo Inagaki 1902 - 1980, Hashimoto Oki-ie 1899 - 1993, Kihei Sasajima 1906 - 1993, and Junichiro Sekino 1914 - 1988.
In the 1950s the center of activity of many of these artists was the Yoseido Gallery in Tokyo. This gallery had become the primary dealer and exhibition venue for the Sosaku Hanga movement. Hiratsuka, who suggested her for a one-person show in 1957, inaugurated Brandes connection to the gallery.
A review that show was written by the esteemed historian of Japanese prints, Oliver Statler, in the Asahi Evening News. Brandes is praised for her enthusiasm and her technical experiments. Statler describes one of her methods in which a wax resist is applied to blocks so that the color printing (using water based inks) forms an uneven and interesting texture.
After three years teaching on the army base and two more years living on her own in Japan, Brandes returned to the US to further her studies. Soon she was in France studying with Antonio Frasconi among others. Her restless life led her to Turkey, Guatemala, Honduras and the San Francisco Bay Area. In every location she pursued art both as a teacher and an avid experimenter in print media. She arranged exhibitions; starting with a children’s art exchange in 1957 between children in Japan and the US. She arranged sales and several exhibitions of the Sosaku Hanga printmakers in the US and in Honduras.
Throughout her career Brandes’ approach to printmaking continued to be influenced by the Sosaku Hanga artists and her teacher Un’ichi Hiratsuka. She always printed by hand, shunned the use of a press and much of her aesthetic seems based on the Japanese models she studied in her youth. This is true both in her use of strong black and white compositional structure derived from Hiratsuka and in her technically experimental approach inspired by other Japanese printmakers. But her experimentation extended beyond her experiences in Japan. She worked in a way similar to how a collage artist might work. However, in her case, the incorporated objects are printings of found objects, bones, painted surfaces, natural and odd commercial wood textures, raised wall paper, tiles, three dimensional maps, as well as blocks carved, glued and burned. This synthetic approach to printmaking placed creativity above edition printing. Many of her works are unique objects. Her prints reflect a lifetime of experimentation in printmaking first nurtured in Japan by contact with the artists of the Sosaku Hanga movement.Information in this article was gathered from contemporary news clipping in the collection of Patricia C. Brandes.