THE ARTIST AND HIS WORKTanaka Ryohei ( 1933 – 2019 ) was a Japanese printmaker who created 770 etchings during his successful artistic career which spanned fifty years. He printed and edited all his etchings himself in editions ranging from 50 to, in some cases, 150 numbered prints.
After having printed the edition he destroyed the copperplate to ensure that his editions were truly limited. Tanaka’s creative process and his editing practise stand directly opposite the woodblock prints of the Edo Period and the later, ever so popular 20th century Shin-hanga, or new woodblock prints, that were produced in a 4 stage production process: the designer of the image, to whose name the work would be attributed, the block-carving craftsmen, the printing-craftsmen and finally the publisher. Whenever the commercial demand arose the publisher, owning the reproduction rights, could order unlimited re-prints from the printers and even order new woodblocks to be carved if the old ones were damaged or worn. Quite in contrast to this traditional Japanese woodblock-print industry Tanaka Ryohei was the single master during the entire creative process. He designed his images, etched his plates and subsequently printed each single etching himself. All together this amounted to nearly 150.000 prints, which all found their way to numerous collections, both public and private, the world over.
Tanaka’s etchings are held in public collections in Asia, Great Britain and the United States, often in considerable numbers: The Museum of Fine Art Boston; the Brooklyn Museum; the Museum of Fine Arts , San Francisco; the Cincinnati Art Museum, Ohio; the Metropolitan Museum of Art , New York; the Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art ; the Indianapolis Museum of Art; the Singapore National Museum; the British Museum and many others.
Largely self-taught, he developed an etching technique that is unmatched. Although he usually limited himself to one colour ink only ( black ) to print his etchings, he always managed to evoke a deep sense of poetry in them. The framing of the view in his work often reminds us of looking through a photographic lens, ranging from a wide angle lens to a tele lens. However he himself never worked from photographs but carefully composed his images from the numerous quick and striking pencil sketches done on the spot.
Tanaka had a great affinity with the variety of Japanese rural architecture which during his lifetime he was sad to see disappearing. He possessed solid knowledge of all these structures and of the building-materials used and, by employing his special etching techniques, rendered them to be practically tangibly for the viewer. His ‘stenographic’, almost crude, sketches show us that he never merely dutifully ‘copied’ what he saw in the landscapes and buildings of inland Japan. These sketches give us a glimpse of the immediate ideas of composition which inspired him on the given moment. He used these sketches as a base to re-format and almost literally re-construct in his carefully composed etchings what had caught his eye, hoping to entice the viewer to see and feel in the finished etched image what he himself had seen and felt in the field.
For detailed information on Tanaka Ryohei’s life and work and on the etching techniques the artist used, the monograph Tanaka Ryohei, Etchings of Rural Japan, written by Chris van Otterloo, is highly recommended.