The Tale Of The Shin Hanga Reunion

Once upon a time (let’s say about 1915) in a land far, far away (Japan), a contemporary art movement began. Artists began to revive a traditional printing system called ukiyo-e from the Edo and Meiji periods (17th–19th century). Making a print became a collaborative process, requiring the expertise of various individuals to realize the artwork.

woodblocksamus1. The artist produced a master drawing in ink
2. An assistant, called a hikkō, would then create a tracing (hanshita) of the master
3. Craftsmen glued the hanshita face-down to a block of wood and cut away the areas where the paper was white. This left the drawing, in reverse, as a relief print on the block, but destroyed the hanshita.
4. This block was inked and printed, making near-exact copies of the original drawing.
5. A first test copy, called a kyōgo-zuri, would be given to the artist for a final check.
6. The prints were in turn glued, face-down, to blocks and those areas of the design which were to be printed in a particular color were left in relief. Each of these blocks printed at least one color in the final design.
7. The resulting set of woodblocks were inked in different colors and sequentially impressed onto paper. The final print bore the impressions of each of the blocks, some printed more than once to obtain just the right depth of color.
-taken from


Yet, the japanese artists produced works unlike those from earlier dynasties. They used the traditional printing techniques and subjects, but the artists’ images were distinctly inspired by the West. Together, this contemporary take on the traditional printing process resulted in a movement of “new prints”, or shin hanga. Many shin hanga artists were actually trained in the oil painting traditions of the west before delving into the woodblock printing.

“The consequence of this fusion of skills and styles resulted in richly detailed images, often creating atmosphere with the use of natural light and soft contours, while not losing the traditional flat, colorful Japanese woodblock style. With shin hanga, colours are blended and varied to create different moods, elements such as linear and atmospheric perspective and tonal contrast are incorporated and expressions are portrayed—all of which was not in evidence in the original ukiyo-e prints.”1


1923 Kanto Earthquake

1923 Kanto Earthquake

There was an earthquake in Japan in 1923. After this devastating event, an artist named Yoshida traveled to the United States with an exhibit of shin hanga prints to raise money for earthquake victims.3

The ambitious J. Arthur MacLean and Dorothy Blair sat up and took notice of Yoshida’s work. In 1926, MacLean accepted a position at the Toledo Art Museum as the curator of Oriental Art, and Blair became the assistant curator.3

The pair seemed determined to elevate the TAM’s Asian collections, and in 1930, the museum installed what is still considered “the pre-eminent exhibit of shin hanga in the western hemisphere…”3


The Toledo Museum of Art

The Toledo Museum of Art

The 1930 show exhibited 343 prints by 10 of the leading shin hanga artists. The collection traveled to 11 American cities and continued Yoshida’s mission of raising money for Japanese earthquake victims.2

The Toledo Art Museum also produced catalogue to accompany the exhibition, and it is still considered “the Japanese woodblock shin hanga bible…There was basically no other information besides that for 50 years…”3

The museum attempted another shin hanga exhibition in 1936, but it was not as successful. Not only was the American public led astray by the siren song of abstraction and the like, World War II happened. Sadly, “no one really wanted to see Japanese anything for quite some time.”3 The original prints for the 1930 show were purchased and then donated by H. D. Bennett, a local businessman.3

Since that time, the prints have rarely seen the light of day. For years, only Japanese art scholars and collectors (with special permission) laid eyes on Toledo’s shin hanga collection.2


Along came Chief Curator Carolyn Putney. A long-time staff member at the Toledo museum, Putney has been wanting to do this exhibition for quite a while. When museum director Brian Kennedy gave her the opportunity to re-make the legendary 1930 show, Putney was overjoyed! For three years she has been piecing together this new shin hanga exhibition called “Fresh Impressions,” and it will open on October 4, 2014, in the Toledo Museum of Art’s Canaday Gallery.

The show features 343 prints by 10 of the leading artists of the shin hanga movement sup>3:
*NOTE the image examples are works that the Toledo museum owns, but I do not know if they are in the show*

And no, you probably have not seen prints like these before.

“The condition is unparalleled. Most Japanese prints have been shown a long time on people’s walls and then given to museums and they fade relatively easily and quickly. Most of these were never shown or rarely shown and the condition is pretty spectacular.” – Kendall Brown, a scholar and professor of Asian art history at California State University Long Beach 2

An updated catalogue accompanies this current exhibition, and unlike its 1930 predecessor, the book features large, full color images plus several essays.3 This catalogue will be another important contribution to shin hanga literature, and Putney hopes that it will be a “great handbook for collectors and dealers.”3

Shin hanga print fans from Europe, around North America, and Japan are just waiting breathlessly for this exhibition to see so many prints. I mean most museums will put out 70, 90, maybe 120, but to have… almost 350 will have a kind of scope and critical mass that we’ve never seen in North America ever, even bigger than the colossal show of 1930.” – Kendall Brown, a scholar and professor of Asian art history at California State University Long Beach 2

And the shin hanga fans all over the world will live happily ever after.

(well, it will be on January 1, 2014)

1. Hodge, Susie. 50 Art Ideas You Really Need to Know. Quercus, 2011.

2. Lockwood, Rod. “Exhibit of Lush Japanese Prints Opens This Week at Toledo Museum of Art.” The Blade. The Toledo Blade Company, 28 Sept. 2013. Web. 04 Oct. 2013.

3. Ottney, Sara. “TMA Exhibit ‘Fresh Impressions: Early Modern Japanese Prints’ Runs through Jan. 1. | Toledo Newspaper.” Toledo Free Press. Toledo Newspaper, 1 Oct. 2013. Web. 04 Oct. 2013.

4. The Toledo Museum of Art. Pristine Collection of Modern Japanese Woodblock Prints On Exhibition This Fall at the Toledo Museum of Art. The Toledo Museum of Art. N.p., 30 July 2013. Web. 4 Oct. 2013.

5. “Ukiyo-e.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 24 Sept. 2013. Web. 04 Oct. 2013.


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