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Showa Period (1926-1989)

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Koshiro Onchi, Japanese, (1891–1955)
Recollections of Tokyo: Ueno Zoo, 1945
Ink on paper
7.1 x 9.6 in.

Object Type: Print
Technique: Wood-block Printing
Period: Showa (Japan, 1926-1989)
Credit Line: Purchased with funds from the Aoki Endowment for Japanese Arts and Cultures
Accession Number: 2009.1.92

Alternate Title: Tokyo Kaiko Zue: Ueno Zoo

Before he became known as father of the Sosaku Hanga movement, Onchi Koshiro was sent to a Japanese-German school for his middle school education by his father, a high-ranking imperial court official who expected him to work in medicine. Because of his familiarity with the German language, Onchi managed to access Western art from the early 20th century, much of which influenced his own art. Diverging from his path of medicine, Onchi studied at the Tokyo School of Fine Arts, where he trained in Western oil painting and sculpture. During his time at the school, Onchi began printmaking when he published the poetry and print magazine Tsukubae with fellow classmates. However, Onchi claimed and asserted that what he was doing with printmaking was different from the ukiyo-e from the Edo period. In his work, Onchi explored figurative, symbolic, and later, abstract imagery through traditional and experimental techniques. While concept of self-designing, -printing, and -publishing was not new in the printmaking world, it was certainly unusual in Japan at the time. Onchi’s work brought the idea of self in printmaking into eminence in the Japanese art world. By World War II, the war environment hindered the Japanese art community and due to its association with the West, abstract imagery was banned. In response, Onchi and other hanga artists banded together to found the First Thursday Society, which met monthly to discuss printmaking. By the 1950s, this group won acclaim and awards in international exhibitions and competitions. In his efforts to revive printmaking after World War II and to honor the Tokyo that disappeared after the war’s destruction, Onchi organized the series Recollections of Tokyo. One print contributed to the series, “Ueno Zoo” commemorates Japan’s oldest zoo, which had a tragic story during the war. Fearing that food scarcity would encourage Tokyo’s people to kill and consume the zoo’s animals and that the animals would incite chaos amidst air raids, the zoo’s proprietor put them to death. Also, the military’s need for metal stripped the zoo of its guardrails and cages and it took many years for the zoo to rebuild.
Uncharacteristic of Onchi, who proponed abstraction, the print is heavily representational. Such a representation is necessary to meet the series’ commemorative intentions. While the metal bars, patrons, and greenery clearly indicate that this print in fact depicts Tokyo’s famous zoo, Onchi creatively applied abstract elements and a rough expressionist treatment to capture the somber feelings associated with the zoo at the time. With a large amount of pavement from the bottom of the print to the zoo’s structures and patrons, the print’s perspective creates an unsettling distance between the viewer and the zoo in the foreground. In context of its World War II tragedy, the zoo has become something far away and lost in the past. Due to their small size, turned backs, and strong shadows, the human figures fade and drift away with the zoo. Because the spectating humans are situated in families, they sadly remind the viewer of what the zoo had been for children. Shadowy and without real form, the zoo’s animals appear non-existent, as they had been after they were killed off during the war.

Isabella Ramos, Scripps College 2017

Object Description
Familes at Ueno Zoo. From the series "Recollections of Tokyo" (Tokyo Kaiko Zue), in which fifteen designs were submitted from various sosaku hanga ("creative prints") artists. THis print is one of three designs contributed by Onchi. He re-used this design from the previously published series, "One Hundred Views of New Tokyo" (Shin Tokyo Hyakkei).

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