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Hacker, Ernst (1917-1987)

Prints in Collection

Biographical Data

Ernst Hacker 1946 (Hacker Archive, The British Museum)


Ernst Hacker (1917-1987)
Source: JapanesePrints During the Allied Occupation 1945-1952, Lawrence Smith, BritishMuseum Press, 2003, p. 7.

Ernst Hacker was sent to Japan with the Occupying forces in spring 1946.  A printmaker himself, he quickly got to know Onchi Kōshirō (1891-1955), a leader of the Creative Print movement, and through him many other artists.  He attended meetings of the FirstThursday Society and exhibited at the Japan Print Association, of whichOnchi was also the leading member.  Hacker's short stay resulted in acollection of prints of the period, many photographs of the Japanesescene, and a long correspondence with the Onchi family. 

This materialand also the extensive collection of prints in books by Onchi and hiscolleagues reside in the British Museum and form the basis for areappraisal of one school of Japanese art (sosaku hanga) during the War and Occupationperiods.


Source: JapanesePrints During the Allied Occupation 1945-1952, Lawrence Smith, BritishMuseum Press, 2003, p. 27-29.
Born in Vienna in 1917 of educated, artistic and liberal Jewish parents Hacker studied art at the Vienna Fine Arts Academy and engineering at the Institute of Technology.  In 1938 he fled Nazi controlled Vienna to New York.  His early work in New York were expressionist monochrome woodblock prints depicting tragic scenes witnessed in Vienna.   In New York he attended the American Artists School where he met his future wife Lucia Vernarelli.  (See portrait below.)

Portrait of Lucia Vernarelli
c. 1950-60
Color Woodblock Print

His parents joined him in New York by 1939.  Late in World War II he gained his US citizenship, was drafted into the army and sent to Manila, where he worked in an art and design group, before being sent to Japan in 1946.

In Tokyo, Hacker produced posters and other graphic material for the Ernie Pyle Theater.  He quickly developed an interest in Japanese art-forms.  Very soon after his arrival he sought out Japanese print artists and by April had met Onchi Koshiro (1891-1955), his family and artistic circle. 

Hacker and Onchi Family (1946)
Hacker Archive, The British Museum

He mastered the techniques of Japanese woodblock quickly enough to be included in the first post-war exhibition of the Japanese Print Association, to which he and his American artist friends Alonzo M. Freeman and John D. Sheppard had been admitted.

Hacker was able to communicate with Onchi in German and shared a passion for photography with him, which helped build their relationship.  He was a frequent visitor to Onchi's house and a valuable friend to Koshiro and the Onchi family.  In his portrait of Hacker, Onchi has inscribed in German "To Mr. Ernst Hacker with thanks for your intimate friendship."

While it is unclear if Hacker ever met Munakata Shiko, another major figure in the post-war sosaku hanga movement, in Japan he did acquire a number of Munakata's works and was to meet him in 1955 in New York.

Hacker returned to New York in the Autumn of 1946.  He continued to make prints and to exhibit until 1967.  He went to live in Florence in 1974 and died in 1987 after a long illness.


Source: British Museum pressrelease on the website of ArtMag.com http://www.artmag.com/museums/a_greab/british/japan1.html
Japanese Prints during the Allied Occupation, 1945 - 1952
4 September - 1 December 2002
British Museum Japanese Galleries, Admission Free

In 1945 much of urban Japan lay in ruins, the land occupied by foreign powers for the first time in the country's history. To many Japanese it seemed that everything had been lost, but in fact the nation would quickly demonstrate - and on a much larger scale than before - its ability to recover physically, economically and culturally from apparent disaster. With the realization that the Occupation forces were not 'oni' ('demons') but largely benevolent and genial individuals, the concept of a 'New Japan' was quickly promulgated. It was one which had attractions to people who had lived in many cases all their lives under a totalitarian regime. All the visual arts began to benefit almost from the outset, and the years between 1945 and 1952 demonstrated increasing confidence and considerable achievement in painting, calligraphy, prints, ceramics and other media.

This illuminating exhibition examines in detail how one school of printmakers, under the pioneering leadership of Onchi Koshiro (1891-1955), managed to survive the Pacific War and, as artists, found themselves among those calling for a new search for the nation's heart in its aesthetic traditions.  Although many continued to suffer from the privations of the war years, they also received unexpected appreciation and support from artists and administrators among the Allied occupying forces.

Symbolic of this process was the meeting of the American graphic artist Ernst Hacker (1917-87), posted to Tokyo in Spring 1946, with Onchi and this circle and Munakata Shiko (1903-75), who was then almost unknown. On joining Onchi's influential printmaking group, 'The First Thursday Society', Hacker's own print style rapidly changed from the monochrome and representational to the richly coloured and abstract idiom which Onchi had been developing. By 1952, when the Allied Occupation ended, Onchi and his circle and Munakata were being eagerly collected in United States and these two, introduced to the world by their American admirers, are now recognized as Japan's greatest print artists of 20th century.

Prints, photographs and other archival material acquired by Ernst Hacker during the post-war years and recently given to the Museum by his widow form the basis of this revealing exhibition.

Source: The New York Times archive

London / EXHIBITION : Cross-cultural encounters in postwar Japan

By Souren Melikian
Published: Saturday, September 28, 2002

This is a story of unlikely encounters and cultural split personalities that could only have happened in the 20th century.

Theprelude takes place in Vienna under Nazi rule with Ernst Hacker, ayoung Austrian from a Jewish family as the central character. In 1938,while still a student at the Academy of Art, Hacker emigrates to NewYork, where he supports himself as a graphic designer andattends the American Artists School. He meets Lucia Vernarelli, whom hemarries, and, having acquired U.S. citizenship, is drafted.

In1945 Hacker is in Manila, and in 1946 he is posted to Japan. In thehalf-destroyed capital, the graphic designer seeks out printmakers andmeets a famous artist, Onchi Koshiro, who had studied engineering inTokyo under German professors. The Jewish refugee from Austria and theJapanese artist communicate in their shared language: German.

Thusbegan an improbable friendship that would spawn an even more improbableartistic school. Unknown until the current show, "Japanese PrintsDuring the Allied Occupation, 1945-1952" at the British Museum — puttogether by the curator emeritus Lawrence Smith — the school's workscan be seen in public for the first time (until Dec. 1).

Ifthe immigrant Hacker may at times have felt disoriented, the Japanesewere steeped in long-standing cultural schizophrenia, attempting toreconcile the conflicting aesthetics of East and West. In 1938, theyear Hacker left Vienna, Onchi made a woodblock print portraying thecomposer Yamada Kosaku. The figural manner is borrowed from the Westernacademic tradition, but the bust stands against flat bands of black,ocher and white, abruptly contrasted, in pure Japanese taste.

Alsoin 1938, Munakata Shiko printed black-and-white portraits in which theinfluence of Picasso and Matisse's draftsmanship are more evident thanthe Japanese legacy. A year later, in this experimental atmosphere,Japanese artists who straddled the two worlds and shared an interest inprintmaking began to meet on the first Thursday of every month. Theiraim was to look together at prints they made solely for themselves, andtheir group was dubbed "The First Thursday Society."

Thehouse in which they met — designed in 1932 by Endo Arata, a Japanesestudent of Frank Lloyd Wright — survived the war, as did the society.How Hacker and two buddies, Alonzo Freeman and John Sheppard, came tojoin it in early 1946 is not known — American soldiers were notpermitted to fraternize with Japanese civilians.

Onchi'swork was a kaleidoscope of Western avant-garde styles interpreted insparing Japanese fashion. "Window Open to the Sea," 1941-1944, is anabstract composition on which the linear geometricism of Paul Klee hasleft its mark. The "sea" is a grayish-blue triangle lodged within thegeometrical figure that stands for the "window." A small chairintroduces an incongruous figural note.

In "Fairy Tales inthe Shell," done in a minimalist manner, tiny curving shapes suggestiveof Joan Miro's compositions are jotted in the middle of a blank sheet.Executed in the woodblock print technique, the result greatly differsfrom the sources that inspired it. Onchi was probably the catalyst ofthis East-West alchemy — there had never been any sign ofabstractionist tendencies in Hacker's art.

Onchi in turnseems to have absorbed influences through Hacker. A strange compositiondubbed "Impressionist Portrait of E.H." shows an eye and half the noseof a face (Hacker's) inserted between a curving band of ocher andabstract blue elements. Onchi dedicated it to his new friend.

Westerntrends of all kinds found echoes in the Japanese woodblock prints. MoriDoshun may have looked at reproductions of Edouard Vuillard'swatercolors of the 1890s, while Yamaguchi Gen appears to have beenreceptive to Matisse's still lifes of the 1920s, hence his "Flowers ina Glass."

There were kitsch images — Yamaguchi Susumu's"Lake Chuzenji" — as well as a few gems. Azechi Umetaro's delightful"Mountain (Yama)" depicts mountains in simplified mauve volumes shadedon one side under a delicate grayish-blue band, the sky. Leafless treeswith spiky stumps rhythmically distributed in the foreground send backa distant echo to German Expressionism.

At long intervals, a yearning for the past comes through, as inTsukamoto Tetsu's landscape handled in the manner of a traditionalpainter dipping the tip of his brush in black ink. The bird's-eye view,the staccato effect of the short strokes speak of the Japanesetradition rooted in the legacy of Ming China.

One strikingmasterpiece was produced in the midst of these experiments. WakayamaYasoji's "Spring" landscape, barely recognizable as such, could becharacterized as suggestively figural. Touches of light color conjureup the idea of fields under a cloudy sky, without showing any of it indetail. Irregular shapes in the distance may stand for trees — it ishard to tell. It all looks like impressions remembered from a dream.

Around1950 Hacker, back in America, produced his ultimate chef d'oeuvre, aportrait of his wife in the pale delicate colors favored bycontemporary Japanese printmakers. The serenity that it exudes is farremoved from the black images of distress that he had done less thantwo decades earlier — and kept, in some cases all his life, like thescene of a man he knew in Vienna who had hanged himself.

Yet,he had not altogether given up his Expressionist style of yore. Thelonely figure crouching on the sidewalk, titled "New York down-and-out"is an image of despondency, in the style of 1938. Hacker became utterlyeclectic. "The Brooklyn Bridge," a print of the 1950s displays, Smithwrites, "some residual influence from the city scenes in the SosakuHanga style he saw in 1946." Another comparison springs to mind as faras the crowded architectural composition is concerned: the FrenchmanEmile Laboureur's views done half a century earlier during a brief tripto New York.

The cultural schizophrenia that the 1946 printsmade by Hacker's Japanese friends reveal persisted after his departure,and even after his death, in 1987. It is still there.

As anappendix to the show of the Hacker archive, which was acquired by theBritish Museum through a gift, a selection of contemporary printsdisplays greater diversity than ever, even if mostly derivative innature. Some betray familiarity with the paintings of Serge Poliakoff,conveyed in the delicate tones of Japanese prints. Others illustrate anattempt at recapturing the greatness of Sharaku's portraits in the1790s. Such is Tsuruya Kokei's scene from the play "Kuruwa Bunsho." Alllook like stylistic exercises, occasionally elegant and nearly alwayspointless. Cultural schizophrenia never was the best path to artisticcreativity.

The British Museum Magazine March 2002


A website covering Ernst Hacker's life and work and The Hacker Archive housed at the British Museum http://luciaarthurernst.com/site/EH/EHFRAME.html