The Woodblock Printings of Kitaoka Fumio

Kitaoka Fumio was a Japanese artist known for his woodblock printing representing various subjects such as post-war Japan, picturesque scenes or abstract forms.

A representative of the sōsaku-hanga

Kitaoka Fumio (1918-2007) studied oil painting and then engraving at the Tokyo School of Fine Arts. He was one of the main figures of the sōsaku-hanga (creative prints) movement. This Japanese artistic movement, born at the beginning of the 20th century, continued the production of Japanese ukiyo-e prints, but moved away from its traditional artisanal conception. The print is no longer the result of a cooperation between the designer, the engraver and the printer; the artist now masters the entire process. In addition, the artist now has greater freedom of expression in his choice of subjects. The war years from 1939 to 1945 were a crucial period for the sōsaku-hanga movement with the creation of the company Ichimokukai (First Thursday Society). This group was created in 1939 by Kōshirō Onchi in Tokyo, and used to meet once a month to discuss about prints of the movement. The first members were Yamaguchi Gen and Junichiro SekinoKitaoka as a student of Kōshirō Onchi, was also introduced in the Ichimokukai. This society helped to revive Western interest in Japanese prints, and to catalog, support and disseminate the works of the movement inside and outside Japan, after the war.

Monochrome woodcuts and reverse engraving

The first important part of Kitaoka’s work were monochrome woodcuts depicting portraits or scenes of life using the itame mokuhan or cross woodcut technique. These engravings are not made according to the ukiyo-e style which consists in cutting the wood away from the lines so that they remain in relief and stand out when printed. Kitaoka does the opposite, the lines are engraved, so that in the print, only white lines are formed by the dark background.

Kitaoka’s 1947 series Sokaku e no tabi 祖国 へ の 旅 (Return to the home country) is a set of 17 monochrome scenes using this technique. It relates the difficult and humiliating repatriation to Japan for his family and many other Japanese citizens stationed during the war in China. Indeed, at the end of World War II and after teaching art in Tokyo he was sent to occupied Manchuria as a teacher.
His return to post-war Japan marked Kitaoka’s work. The portfolio Tokyo no Kao (The Face of Tokyo) gathers in 5 different parts 25 paintings representing different scenes of Tokyo. These scenes document from a social-realist angle, the desolation, festivities, places, and people of a city traumatized by war.

Return to the home country, Legion of Honor
The Face of Tokyo
Monochrome Woodcut Kitaoka Fumio Face of Tokyo

Kitaoka Fumio also made portraits of famous people in their working environment. With for example, these almost twin portraits made in 1951. The portrait of the playwright and critic Nagayo Yoshirô (left) and the portrait of Fujikake Shizuya (right), a professor of art history, who was very influential in the popularization of ukiyo-e prints.

The exploration of a linear abstraction

He gradually abandoned this style of monochrome woodblock printing during the 50s. Under the influence of Kōshirō Onchi he experimented abstract painting, totally forbidden during the war in Japan. Nevertheless, the composition reminds Kitaoka’s formation, the forms are geometric and the lines are a reminiscence of the work on woodblock prints. The use of color was also almost new in his production except for some previous landscape paintings.

The affirmation of color and the diversification of subjects

Probably marked by the sudden internationalization of Japan in the post-war period and the Western processes that inspired the sōsaku-hanga movement, Kitaoka Fumio left in the mid-1950s to study wood engraving at the Beaux Arts in Paris. He abandons shortly after this period his realistic style to start working in a more decorative style. He produced picturesque views of landscapes and rural scenes, as well as still lifes, often colored with thick pigments. In the mid-70s he changed format. He devoted himself to the production of various Japanese meisho (views of famous places) and landscapes using a colorful palette and a picturesque style that seems to be a synthesis between his realistic style and the abstraction of certain shapes and colors more or less marked depending on the subject.

Monochrome Woodcut Kitaoka Fumio Fishing Village

Kitaoka Fumio remained an important and influential figure in 20th-century Japanese printmaking. His unique style is characterized by the development of the processes employed, the integration of western techniques, the connection between traditional and contemporary Japanese and a work in constant evolution.

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