Yamamoto Kanae (1882-1946) was the founding father of the Japanese Sosaku Hanga art movement that came up at the beginning of the twentieth century. The Sosaku Hanga artists thrived for the Western ideal of creativity and at least in theory they postulated that the artist had to perform the whole process of creating a print by himself including the block carving and printing and not only the design.
The Grandfather of Sosaku Hanga
In 1904 Yamamoto created what is considered to be historically the first Sosaku Hanga print, titled Gyofu - the image of a Japanese fisherman. Ishii Hakutei, an artist himself and an early promoter of the new "Creative Prints" movement, published this print in July 1904 in the magazine Myojo.
In 1907 Yamamoto and a growing number of Sosaku Hanga artists created their own magazine, Hosun, which means little thing in Japanese. It existed for only four years. In 1912, Yamamoto left Japan and went on a long journey by ship to Marseille in France and to Paris - at that time the uncontested center of Western art. The young artist wanted to study Western oil painting. Kanae stayed in France for four years until 1916. The artist had brought with him tools and materials to create prints under the same conditions as in Japan. He regularly sent his works home to Japan and his family and friends sold them under a subscription scheme, which had been launched to finance his stay in Europe. The four years in France are considered to be his most prolific period as a print maker. Many prints show scenes and people from Brittany like Bathers of Brittany, Small Bay of Brittany, Bathing or Woman of Brittany. The year 1916 was not ideal for a return to Japan. World War I was raging in Europe and the passage by ship through the Suez Canal was not possible. Kanae decided to go back to Japan via Moscow and by the Trans-Siberian Railway. The journey was an adventurous one via London, Norway, Sweden and Moscow. He stayed several weeks in Moscow where he experienced the beginning of the Russian revolution.
Children's Free Art and Farmer's Art Movement
Yamamoto had always been a bit of a political rebel. But while travelling through Russia he had caught the virus of Socialist utopia.
Back in Japan he devoted nearly all his time and energy in pursuing Socialist ideas. Kanae wanted to revolutionize the art education of children in Japan and founded the Japan Children's Free Painting Society. Another of his utopian projects was the Farmers' Art Movement. He had established a school where he held courses for the proletarian class in such crafts as weaving, embroidery, painting, wood carving. It was no wonder that Yamamoto was on a collision course with authorities who watched his activities with suspicion.
The Yamamoto Kanae Museum in Ueda
The tragic thing about his obsession with his utopian projects was the neglecting of his own artistic creations. The two projects exhausted him so much that he hardly made any more prints after 1920 and only few oil paintings. In 1942 he had a cerebral hemorrhage which left him partially paralyzed. He died in October 1946 at the age of sixty-four. Shortly before his death he destroyed the blocks of his prints with a hatchet. Only a handful of blocks that he had given to friends remained. In 1962 the city of Ueda, where the artist had lived until 1935, opened The Yamamoto Kanae Museum in his honor. It has 1.800 items on display.