Sekino Jun'ichirô ( 1914–1988) was the leading Japanese figurative printmaker to emerge from the circle of Onchi Kôshirô (1891–1955). Highly skilled in drawing and composition, Sekino assimilated traditional and modern art from Japan, Europe, and the United States in his portraiture, still life, and landscapes. A prolific artist, he worked for nearly six decades, producing well over a thousand prints, drawings, watercolors, and oil paintings. Sekino's best works, especially those around the mid-twentieth century, stand out as notable achievements in modern Japanese printmaking.1
Sekino was also a prolific book illustrator and designer, following a model established by his mentor Onchi who produced 1,000 to 2,000 book, magazine, and sheet-music designs. We don't, at the moment, have a reliable count for all of Sekino's book projects, but he must have had a hand in many hundreds, and possibly more than 1,000 books, ranging from providing a single illustration for a volume of poetry to creating many images and texts for his own books, for which he designed all the contents from cover to cover. These works were often inventive in style and represent a substantial commitment to the art of the Japanese book in the twentieth century.
For more about this artist, see Sekino Jun'ichirô Biography.
The title Utsukushi-sa to kanashimi to (Beauty and sadness: 美しさと哀しみと) refers to the novel by Kawabata Yasunari (川端康成 1899-1972, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968), the first Japanese author to receive the award. The book was first serialized between January 1961 and October 1963 in Fujin kôron (Women's Review: 婦人公論) and published in book form in 1965 by Kabushiki-gaisha Chûôkôron-shinsha (株式会社中央公論新社).
The present, large-format design by Sekino is an excellent example of the brightened palette often encountered during his middle and later years. These include portraits of geisha and maiko (young geisha-in-training: 舞子 or 舞妓) from Kyoto. A full-scale preparatory drawing in watercolor and graphite is known (see Fiorillo ref.2, fig. no. 18, and the illustration on the right). In the transition from the large expressive drawing to the published print, the maiko's physiognomy, initially hinting at an actual likeness, becomes a mostly idealized and charming visage. We might surmise — more so from the drawing than from the bright, upbeat print — that the budding entertainer's expression suggests a bittersweet mood, perhaps paralleling the novel's exploration of conflicts between tradition and modernity, love and jealousy, and beauty and power. Utsukushi-sa to kanashimi to was made into films by Shinoda Masahiro (篠田正浩 born 1931), also titled Beauty and Sadness (美しさと哀しみと) in 1965 (see original film poster at left), and by Joy Fleury (Tristesse et Beauté, 1985). It has also been repeatedly adapted for Japanese television.
Sekino's woodcut is a fine design in the mode of his late-career, large-scale portrayals of young women thriving in Japan's modern-day art and entertainment fields. His close observations of these "accomplished persons" in preliminary drawings, plus exacting supervision of his art-studio productions such as the woodcut on offer here, yielded perceptive evocations of cultural figures as well as impressive technical achievements in printmaking. The precision in the application of pigments (including gold leaf), delicate shading (bokashi: 暈), sophisticated color choices, and flowing fabrics make this a standout design. Note the duality in the perception of the young girl's concentrated gaze as reflected in a mirror versus the exposed (sensuous) nape of her neck seen directly by the viewer, not without a touch of voyeurism to spice up the intimate scene. Yet modern though it is, Sekino's woodcut is also associated with courtly antecedents of dress and comportment, as suggested by the figure of the long-haired woman painted on the obi (帯 long sash wrapped around the waist and folded up against the back), which is rendered in the narrative manner of the Tosa school (土佐派) and yamato-e (native Japanese style pictures: 大和絵). Thus, the charming young trainee-geisha is presented as a contemporized heir to centuries-old customs originating as far back as the Heian period (794-1185).
It is difficult to find prints of this scale by Sekino that are still in excellent condition — a welcome change from the usual impressions damaged by poor framing practices and excessive light exposure.
- Aomori Museum of Art (Aomori Kenritsu Bijutsukan: 青森県立美術館), ed. Akira Kanno (担当菅野晶): Sekino Jun'ichirô ten: Seitan hyakkunen (Exhibition of Sekino Jun'ichirô: 100th Anniversary of His Birth": 関野準一郎展 ・ 生誕百年), Oct. 4 to Nov. 24, 2014 (exhibition catalog, 231 pp.).
- Fiorillo, John, "The art of Sekino Jun'ichirô: Expressive realism and geometric formalism," in: Andon, 2017, no. 104, p. 73.
- Jun'ichirô Sekino, the Prints (関野準一郎版画作品集 Sekino Jun'ichirô hanga saku shina-shû "Collected prints of Sekino Jun'ichirô," Intro. by Kuwabara, Sumio, 1994; ed. ©1997 Katsuko Sekino, no. 883, p. 159.
- Smith, Lawrence. Japanese Prints during the Allied Occupation 1945-1952 — Onchi Kôshirô, Ernst Hacker and the First Thursday Society (London: British Museum, 2002), pp. 62 and 89, no. 48.
- Amanda Zehnder: Modern Japanese Prints — The Twentieth Century (Pittsburgh: Carnegie Museum of Art, 2009), p. 161.