Onchi Kôshirô, 1933
Woodblock print; ink and color on paper
[Boston Museum of Fine Arts collection]

Onchi Kōshirō ((Japanese, 1891–1955)) is considered one of the leading innovative figures among Japan’s twentieth-century artists. He is credited with producing Japan’s first purely abstract work Light Time in 1915. He produced single sheet prints and book designs, as well as being a poet and art theorist. He began his career learning oil painting at the Tokyo School of Fine Arts, going on to study sculpture, which he later abandoned. In 1911, under the influence of Takehisa Yumeji (1884-1934), Onchi began to design books and quickly became involved in producing print and poetry magazines. He designed the first edition of Hagiwara Sakutarō’s (1886-1942) innovative collection of poems Tsuki ni hoeru (Howling at the Moon, 1917).

Onchi’s contribution both as traditionalist and innovator can best be seen in his single-sheet prints. He was one of the founders of the sōsaku hanga (creative print) movement. Unlike traditional commercial woodblock printmakers, these artists were inspired by painting and carried out every stage of production themselves: designing, cutting, and printing, then circulating the finished works to a relatively small élite circle.

Onchi started to make abstract prints at the beginning of the Taishō era (1912-26), and continued to experiment, drawing on traditional elements of Japanese color and decorative sense, combining them with motifs from international modernism. His prints were produced in very small editions, demonstrating his attitude to his works as one-offs, closer in spirit to paintings than to traditional woodblock prints.

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