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Yoshida Masaji (1917–1971)

Prints in Collection

Biographical Data

Masaji Yoshida c. 1965
(Source: The Contemporary Artist in Japan, David Kung, East-West Center Press, Honolulu, 1966,
p. 159)


Yoshida Masaji 吉田政次 (1917-1971)
Source: John Fiorillo's website http://www.viewingjapaneseprints.net/texts/sosakutexts/sosaku_pages/masaji3.html

Masaji Yoshida was one of the most skilled pupils of Onchi Kôshirô (1891-1955), a founder of the sosaku hanga movement. Onchi encouraged his students toexperiment with woodblock carving, printing, and compositionaltechniques. One of Masaji's early printseries was a set of bold black and white geometrical prints, titled Fountain of Earth. As Masaji continued to explore new approachestoward abstract design, he turned toward softer shapes in subduedcolors. He developed a method of cutting his various color blocks froma single board and then fitting them back together within a frame thatpermitted raising each piece separately when it was needed to print aspecific color area. Masaji did not use the typical registration method(kentô); rather, he tacked the paper to the edge of the frame. Masajiused heavily dampened, unsized paper to make the colors spread andproduce a blotting-like effect, while also imparting soft edges to theshapes. He also printed muted shades of gray over his principal colorsto add further depth and interest to his designs.
Many criticshave commented on the atmosphere of disquiet and suffering that seemsto lie just beneath the surface of Masaji's prints. Masaji once saidthat he was seeking "serenity" in his work. Whatever theinterpretation, it is fairly certain that his interest lay in exploringsimple forms that evoked a sense of deeper appreciation for what wasprofound in human existence. The shapes in his compositions and themanner in which they are arranged are often vaguely reminiscent of theearth and gardens.  Masaji's restrained, sophisticated color palettehas been praised by some who find him one of the finest colorists ofthe sôsaku hanga school. The overprinting of dilute pale gray istypical of his work in this style and creates a shifting sense of depththat contributes to a feeling of mystery. The placement of the large,ominous, dark gray shape also contributes to a feeling of unsettledmovement. Diagonal black lines in the upper part of the compositionbecame a principal design motif in Masaji's later, more monumentalprints.


Source: Modern Japanese Prints: An Art Reborn, Oliver Statler, Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1956, p. 148-151

Masaji Yoshida was born inWakayama and lived there until he finished middle school, when he moved to Tokyo. After studying drawing from casts for a year at a privatepreparatory school he entered the government art academy at Ueno. Itwas in this period that Hiratsuka (a founder of the sosaku hanga movement) was teaching his extracurricularcourse in hanga. "I enjoyed the class," says Yoshida. "I had no idea ofmaking prints, but I liked them and I thought it would be interestingto know more about them."

Graduating from Ueno in 1942, Yoshidawas immediately drafted into the army. Within a week he was on his wayto China, and after a month's basic training there he was sent to thefront. A year later he was back in Kyushu for six months' officers'training, and he returned to China as a warrant officer. This time hedrew a commanding officer who liked art, and for the first time sinceUeno he was given some free time to sketch. He was promoted tosublieutenant and then, seriously wounded in action, was hospitalizedfor six months, still in China.    

With the armistice, hisunit became prisoners of war and it was more than half a year beforethey were returned to Japan. Although a captive, he had freedom to roamabout and sketch, and often he exchanged a drawing for a bowl ofnoodles. When he found he would be allowed to bring no sketches back toJapan he gave them all to the peasants.

He was repatriated inMarch 1946, and after a couple of weeks at home he went back to Uenofor a year of postgraduate work. "We lived like vagrants in that firstpostwar year," he remembers. "Some of us lived in what had been one ofthe school's tearooms, and we burned wood in open fires on the floor toget a little warmth."

During this postgraduate year he began toteach art at a public high school on a part-time basis, and when he hadfinished at Ueno he became a regular teacher. "Because I'm aprint-maker, I suppose I've slanted my course toward hanga," he says."My students are very enthusiastic about making prints, and they'redoing fine work." Samples by seventh and eighth graders indicate thatthe standard is extraordinarily high in both black and white and color.Yoshida is proud of their work, proud that he is usually consulted onany international exchange of students' prints, and proud that, in asuccessful book on scenes of Tokyo illustrated by children, all but twoor three of the prints were made in his classes.

Turning to Prints

Asked how hehappened to turn to prints after starting out in oil, Yoshida repliedthat there were a number of reasons. "A minor one is that after thewar the available oil paints were of very poor quality. More important,Kitaoka [Kitaoka Fumio (1918-2007)] began to make prints in earnest and his work showed so muchimprovement over his oils that I couldn't help but be impressed.Furthermore, my own work was progressing toward the abstract and twodimensional, and I became convinced that for what I was trying to dothe print is more suitable than oil." He pointed to some of his ownabstract oil paintings in tones of grey, and to nearby prints in thesame manner. "Those oil paintings fail completely--the whole effortcomes perilously close to house painting--and yet in prints the sameideas are effective."


"I first became interested in abstract artat Ueno before the war. But it was Onchi [Onchi Koshiro (1891-1955)], after the war, who gave methe impetus to do abstract work. Within the Hanga Association we set upa study group with Onchi as the leader. As I listened to him I foundthat he expressed many ideas I had long felt, and this gave me theconfidence I needed.

I'm the kind of artist who wants, not todevelop new ideas, but to do something new. For many years my style wasmolded by reaction against my wartime experience. Life in the army wasrough, confused, and violent. I'd had more than enough of that, butwhen I returned to Tokyo and went to see a large major exhibition Ifound that the whole show was battle itself. It set me to thinking. Iwanted something orderly and serene and peaceful, and I decided onquiet grays in simple vertical and horizontal forms. My titles give aclue as to what I was seeking: some of my earliest work is a seriescalled Silence.

As I look back it's as though I had fled fromthe chaos of war to the peace and quiet of the desert. It was good forme, but after a while I needed something else and I left the desert forthe forest. My new prints are conceived with a feeling of vigor andgrowth. From small prints I turned to big ones and from muted grays tothe force of black and white. It was a major transition and it took mesix months to resolve the design for the first one."

A Choice: Woodblock Prints over Oil Painting  (The Artist's words)

Source: The Contemporary Artist in Japan, David Kung, East-West Center Press, Honolulu, 1966, p. 158
"Whydid I switch from oil to woodblock prints?  There is no clear answer. I was subconsciously attracted by the effect of lines produced inwoodblock work.  I found a great sense of reward in seeing the tracesof my chisel and knife.  Woodcut lines are tender and warmer and arevery human and Japanese in sentiment, while etching is basically afree-hand exercise on a copper plate. 

My long career ofwoodblock prints could be divided chiefly into three phases.  The firstphase was a period of optimism.  My lines were straight and geometricin design - bold and exhilarating.  Then, in my second stage, my workbecame more withdrawn.  During this period I was very much affected bythe death of our only son.  My lines tended to become nervous,sensitive, oblique.   The lines developed into sharp needle points.  Mycolors are dark - a shade of brown mixed with light red, Indian-red,and white - and they represented the colors of sorrow and destruction. Ironically, my work began to gain acclaim both at home and abroad. This style, which served as a safe island where I could hide my wounds,persisted until recently.  Now I feel that I should come out of thisself-imposed seclusion.  I want to bring out a sense of space, which isdifficult in woodblock prints."


James Michener

Source: The Modern Japanese Print - An Appreciation, James Michener, Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1968, p. 48-49
Masaji is the most intellectual of the print artists, a man of exquisitely refined tastes who has been encouraged by a small coterie of admirers to pursue his highly individualistic art.  He makes his living teaching in public schools, for his prints have never sold in large enough quantities to support him, and his influence is widely felt in the school system.

Four Categories of Work

His mysterious prints, for it would be impossible to describe them in any other way, fall into four clear categories.

First Category: At the end of the war, when he found destruction throughout his city and color running wild in the paintings of his friends, he retreated to a severely cauterized world of gray marked by symbolic figures.  These prints were distinguished by an autocratic control which stood in contrast to the chaos he saw and felt about him.  They are handsome works, large and clean and impressive.

Second Category: Masaji progressed to an even more austere vision of the world, depicted in a series of brilliant, immense prints titled "The Fountain of Earth."  These consist of rigidly disposed series of straight black-and-white lines dominated here and there by large black or white circles.  They are stunning prints, some of the most dramatic ever to have been released in Japan, and as decoration they are superb.

Third Category:  Masaji’s third kind of print [of which Novel Growth No. 2 is an example] formed a radical departure and was occasioned, as such new forms ought to be, by a personal crisis within the conscience of the artist.  The prints appear mostly in purple and black and always with a swarm of closely knit lines…  The designs are tortured, involuted, brooding, and the mysterious colors effectively represent the spirit of the work.  These are most distinguished prints, not widely favored by collectors but cherished by those who know the artist and who are concerned with the artistic problems inherent in the modern school of woodblock prints.  What dark experience of the soul called forth this series I do not know, but during its issue Masaji’s son died, and the prints form a fitting memorial to this tragedy, although they were not originally called forth by it.  Connoisseurs of the exquisite in art should know these prints, for they are some of the most expert issued in Japan, veritable masterpieces of printing and color.  They exhibit no quick allure and one comes to them quietly after having known other prints that on the surface are much more enticing; but when one has discovered their quiet mastery one recognizes in them a milestone in contemporary Japanese woodblocks.

Fourth Category: They have the subdued color harmony of the first type, the exquisite control of design that marked the second, and the mysterious lines and color harmonies of the third, all blended to produce a simplicity that is compelling.  [Ground No. 3 is an example of this category.]

Lawrence Smith (Former Keeper of Japanese Antiquities and Keeper Emeritus, The British Museum)

Source: Modern Japanese Prints 1912-1989, Lawrence Smith, British Museum Press, 1994, p. 61.

In the early 1960s Yoshida was doing a lot of work of great density and intensity using only one main ink block carved with considerable detail in herringbone patterns and printed over one or two grainy colors.  His earlier practice of carving all of his blocks from one surface. like a jigsaw puzzle, had given him a notably unified approach to the production of his prints.  Unlike Onchi or any of his other main pupils, whose work was characterized by elegant, lyrical and even detached abstraction, Yoshida's work increasingly displayed a sense of menace, despair or unease.

Artist's Seals

seal on Ground No. 3

printed seal or signature on Stone Garden of Kyoto


The Modern Japanese Print: AnAppreciation, James Michener, Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1968, p. 48-50
Modern Japanese Prints 1912-1989, Lawrence Smith, British MuseumPress, 1994, pp. 16, 38, & 61; plates 103-106
Modern Japanese Prints: An Art Reborn, Oliver Statler, Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1956, p. 148-152; plates 84-85.
Contemporary Japanese Prints, Michiaki Kawakita, Kodansha International Ltd, 1967, p. 187, plates 18, 76