Nakajima Tsuzen's woodblock prints trigger memories in the same way certain melodies or particular scenes may whisk us back to pleasant moments of the past. Nakajima depicts the landscapes of Japan and often uses geta, Japanese umbrellas or tatami rooms as his subjects, complementing those backgrounds perfectly and enhancing a uniquely Japanese feeling.
The subtle use of color, especially the shades of green and blue, stands out in his work. Touches of bright red provide accents, while the delicately carved lines convey tranquility.
Although Nakajima, 55, has lived in Tokyo all his life, his work focuses mainly on nature and the four seasons in Japan, as well as images from his childhood memories. For spring, cherry blossoms, new bamboo shoots and fresh green; for summer, fireflies, morning glories and cicadas. The autumn motifs are falling leaves, while plum trees and camellia blossoms dominate the winter landscapes. Mount Fuji and its seasonal changes is one of his favorite subjects.
When asked what interests him most about his topic of choice, he says it is the variety of nature. "I am just charmed by the changing seasons in Japan," he says.
He puts emphasis on natural motifs, but he also depicts Buddhist images. His father was a Buddhist monk, and the influence of Buddhism on his life is unmistakable, although he points out that his Buddhist prints are purely for the sake of art.
Many people have likened his works to ukiyo-e prints.
"In many ways, it's true. But the difference is that with my woodblock printing you can see the grain of the wood in the prints (he named Hangi-ga instead Moku-Hanga), and that makes an interesting surface that can't be seen in ukiyo-e," he says. The kind of colors that he uses wouldn't come out if he painted them directly on paper with a brush, he adds.
Nakajima has taught himself every step, from carving to printing, which are all done by hand. He says that he is not interested in anything done mechanically.
"These days, everything can be done by computer," says Nakajima. "Things are mechanized and systematized. But I believe that there are certain things that have value because they are created by human hands, and woodblock printing is one of them."
Nakajima says that he made woodblock prints for the first time in the first few years of elementary school. Encouraged by his junior high school art teacher, he went on to make nengajo (New Year's cards), which he still makes now, carving the picture as well as the words.
At the end of high school, he decided to study physics, but after two years he changed course and majored in art history at Waseda University. Nevertheless, his main interest was in Russian literature (he was entranced by the works of Dostoevsky) and he wasn't creating any artwork at the time.
After graduating from college, he eventually went on to work for the publicity section of a publishing company. Ten years later, he decided to take up woodblock printing professionally.
Nakajima is not the kind of artist who goes into the mountains to concentrate on his work. On the contrary, he loves life in Tokyo, going out for drinks and socializing. In this way he has met a number of people who have been a great help to his career.
"I think it's part of an artist's talent to be able to meet new people [who might appreciate his work]. No one can live on his or her own. I love what I do, and thanks to the support of the people who appreciate my art I can continue doing what I like," says Nakajima.
"One can surely live without art, but how much fun would life be if it didn't exist?" he says, with a smile. "Art represents a special world of imagination and a playing with the senses that only humans can enjoy."