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Between individual expression and collectivism : Onchi Kōshirō's wartime prints Davis, Annika


Onchi Kōshirō (1891-1955) was one of the key figures associated with the creative print movement, sōsaku hanga. The movement developed in Japan in the early 20th century, one of many practices in the visual arts that heralded the rise of modernism in Japan. Creative prints differed both visually, and in their means of production, from the traditional ukiyo-e woodblock prints that had been so popular during the Edo period (1603-1868). Rather than being created on commission by a team of people, as ukiyo-e had been, sōsaku hanga artists took as their motto “self-drawn, self-carved, self-printed.” This change reflected their embrace of expressionist ideals, as they strove to dissolve the boundaries between art and life and sought to depict the everyday, including their own thoughts and feelings. Most scholars break Onchi’s work into pre and post-World War II periods, paying little attention to his wartime activities. However, the war years represent an important time in his career, during which he was forced to negotiate his own artistic subjectivity within a nationalistic frame. In many ways, wartime nationalism helped woodblock print artists to justify their place within society, as the medium came to be seen as uniquely, divinely Japanese. Though it may seem at odds with the movement’s ideals, Onchi was very active during the war, traveling to Manchuria to document activities there, and selling works to help fund the war effort. Through a study of Onchi and other artists’ activities during the war, I explore this period of his life, so as to more critically consider the implications that it had on his existence as a modern Japanese artist, and leader of the sōsaku hanga movement.

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