During his 33-year stay in Washington, Japanese printmaker Un'ichi Hiratsuka (1895-1997) was indeed "A Master in Our Midst," a fitting title for the small tribute now at the National Museum of American Art. His strength was his ability to conjure nature--the surge of the sea, the bend of a windswept pine, the spreading circles of water around puddled steppingstones--with just a few impassioned, coal-black lines.
Hiratsuka was already a designated "national treasure" in Japan when, at 67, he came to Washington to visit his artist-daughter, Keiko Moore. He planned to spend less than a year but ended up staying until he was 100.
He began attending weekly figure drawing sessions with his daughter and other Washington artists, and was soon part of the local scene. Franz Bader Gallery began selling his prints during the ongoing print boom. "He loved the freedom of just being able to work every day without interruption," recalls Moore.
In Washington his landscapes changed dramatically, though his style and technique never did. The resulting images--the Lincoln Memorial, Library of Congress and Key Bridge--now seem charmingly quaint, Washington landmarks seen through the eyes of a modern yet relentlessly traditional Japanese master.
This group of 19 works, though too small to tell the tale adequately, covers both Japanese and Washington subjects. But the most satisfying are surely the poetic early views: "Mt. Fuji," "Castle at Matsue" and "Stepping Stones at Isui-en Garden, Nara in the Afternoon." Also here are some of the hundreds of rarely exhibited nudes that Hiratsuka produced and later published in a book along with his poems, a project that took 14 years. They began, says the artist's daughter, in the life-drawing sessions he attended with her soon after his arrival here.
Early in his career Hiratsuka led the creative print movement in Japan, where the ancient art of woodblock printing had degenerated into a commercial process. With many students and followers, Hiratsuka set out to revive it as a creative medium by returning every aspect of the process to the individual artist, from the original drawing to the carving of the wood block to the printing of the final work. Soon he abandoned color for black and white.
"He loved deep, velvety blacks and made black an expressive color," says NMAA curator Joanne Moser. But printing them wasn't easy: Too much ink would spread and blur, too little would look pale. To get his distinctively rich blacks, he had to print layer upon layer of black ink, repeatedly laying paper over the carved, inked block and rubbing with a flat tool. "It was labor-intensive," says Moser, "but it gave him total control."
It also gave him great pleasure, as he makes clear in a poem accompanying his 1954 woodcut "Artist's Tools With Calligraphy." It reads: "Of my very first impression, this joy, to whom shall I tell?"
Hiratsuka developed a small, devoted following here, but he remained a low-profile master. Not so in Japan, where a small private museum in Nagano prefecture already has a wing dedicated to his work. The city of Tokyo has also recently expressed interest in building a museum devoted to Hiratsuka's art as well as his rare and valuable collections of ancient Japanese roof tiles, books and Buddhist prints from the 7th and 8th centuries. His daughter will travel to Japan this month to further explore the plan.
Meanwhile, most of the prints in this unfortunately skimpy little show are on loan from two of Hiratsuka's most devoted area collectors, Ken and Kyo Hitch and the Hakuta family.
The exhibit runs through Sept. 12 at the National Museum of American Art, Eighth and G streets NW. The nearest Metro stop is Gallery Place. The museum is free and open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.