Monday, April 4, 2011

Artist Profile: Watanabe Sadao
The Prodigal Son

Japanese Christian artist Watanabe Sadao (1913–1996) was a textile artist who worked in the katazome technique of stenciling and dyeing, which he learned while studying under master artist Serizawa Keisuke (1895-1984).  Keisuke had originally been trained in graphic design, but later became very involved in the mingei movement, which sought to recognize the beauty and significance of Japanese folk art of various media.  Keisuke studied under Yanagi Soetsu (1889-1961), the founder of the mingei movement.  Soetsu and his associates had scoured Japan for the finest examples of Japanese folk art of various media and in 1936 created the Japan Folk Craft Museum in Tokyo in which to display them.  Anne H. H. Pyle writes that Soetsu's

concept of mingei folk art consisted of objects made by hand from natural materials in sufficient number to serve or to be used by the masses of people daily, and he argued that “it was because they were used that they were beautiful” (p. 21).

Watanabe Sadao entered the museum in 1937 to see an exhibition of Keisuke's prints.  At age 17 Sadao had become a Christian and was baptized.  Prior this event, his life had been a sad one because his father had died when he was ten.  Then he had to quit school after his father's death to help support his mother.  After a bout with tuberculosis in his teens, he was apprenticed to a dyer's shop, where he began to learn the technique of designing and dyeing patterns for kimonos and obis.  He also loved to study and draw traditional Japanese and Okinawan designs in his spare time.
Watanabe Sadao (left) with his teacher
Serizawa Keisuke taken in front of
The Story of Ruth (1947), at the
Japan Folk Art Museum.
But as Sadao's life continued, he moved aimlessly from one dreary, low-paying job to another, continuing to work mostly in dyer shops. It wasn't until he saw the exhibition of Keisuke's prints that he finally found his professional calling in life.  He soon joined a study group of like-minded individuals led by Keisuke and began to learn the katazome technique of stenciling and dyeing.  This technique was very similar to the professional training he had already gained in his dyeing work.  Pyle writes that Sadao's

study with Serizawa presented a way to merge his faith with his artistic talent using the direct and simple folk art approach, which he believed came closest to the heart of his people. As Watanabe himself recalled, the mingei philosophy with its “artistic sense of the common people  that puts aside display and ostentation, is simple in its tastes, and concentrates on what is really useful in the work and lives of people,” made a deep impression on him...  Watanabe interpreted Yanagi’s [Buddhist] philosophy in the light of his own faith. He believed that if his work resulted in beauty and usefulness, it was because of the grace of God shining through the natural materials he used. Through this succession of events, Watanabe’s artistic career came to be a unique combination of Japanese folk art and Christian affirmation (p. 22-23).
The Story of Ruth
Sadao entered The Story of Abraham in a Tokyo exhibition in 1943.  As the final round of judging approached, his mentor Seriwaza told him to withdraw it because it seemed to him "imcomplete."  Sadao did so, trusting his teacher's instincts.  Later, in 1947 Sadao entered The Story of Ruth in a national exhibition of folk art at the first Folk Art Museum, where it won the museum's first ever prize.  Serizawa was pleased.  A year later the same print received the prestigious Kokugakai award from the Japanese Print Association.

Despite his talent and skill, the growth of Sadao's reputation was a slow one.  After World War II, a debate began among the arts community of Japan as to what constituted “fine art” and “applied art” or craft (due to the growing influence of western art criticism).  Because Sadao's work straddled the division between the two, he had some difficulty getting his work into subsequent shows that showcased one category or the other.  After 1956 he never again received an award for his art in Japan.
The Bronze Serpent
Nevertheless, in 1958 his international recognition increased when he received first prize for The Bronze Serpent at New York City's Modern Japanese Print Exhibition.  This print showed the stylistic influence of another major mingei artist and leader, Zen Buddhist wood-cut artist Munakata Shiko.  Then in 1962 author James Michener included Sadao's Listening (Kiku) in his book The Modern Japanese Print, Michener's tribute to the Japanese art form.  Sadao said that Listening was his first print where he used color successfully!

Sadao's deepest desire was to reach his fellow Japanese with the message of the Gospel, in a form that was fully Japanese.  This was one of the primary reasons he chose the art form he did, as well as for depicting the biblical subject matter in fully Japanese cultural settings.  As his life progressed, the process of creating his art became a form of worship, inspired by his daily study of the Bible.  He continued to fuse the influences of Keisuke and Shiko into his own style.

In spite of becoming one of Japan's greatest national artists, he received very little recognition from his countrymen or fellow Christians, who have never comprised more than 1% of the modern population.  Pyle concludes that "it is ironic that from one of Japan’s most deeply rooted indigenous art forms came the work of its greatest Christian artist" (p. 29).  Perhaps one day, the artistic and spiritual seeds that God planted through Watanabe Sadao will grow and bear fruit in the hearts of the Japanese people.
Lamentation Over the Body of Christ

For more on this great artist, please read the full text of Anne H. H. Pyle's informative article, which includes more about the man, his technique, and descriptions of the prints listed here (as well as others).  To see images of his work, check out the following websites:

Profound Faith, Profound Beauty: The Life and Art of Sadao Watanabe
SadaoHanga Catalogue
Scriptum Modern Japanese Prints
Los Angeles County Museum of Art

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