Website Copyright © Ray Rapkerg 2013                   *The quote in the page header is by Katherine Martin at Scholten Japanese Art - www.scholten-japanese-art.com


Japanese woodblock print artist Goyo Hashiguchi

Woman Combing Her Hair
by Goyo Hashiguchi, 1920

“it transcends its era and stands out
as an iconic work among Japanese
woodblock prints of any period”

Scholten*

Hi there, my name is Ray Rapkerg and I’m a photographer with a fondness for Japanese prints.
My favourite Japanese artist is Goyo Hashiguchi, so I thought I would write this version of his biography.

Hashiguchi, Goyo (1880-1921)


Biography

The Life of Goyo Hashiguchi


Once upon a time in Japan there was an artist called Goyo Hashiguchi. He was born in 1880, at a time when Japan had opened up to Western influences and was changing rapidly. He was the son of a Samurai warrior, so I imagine he was keenly aware of the tensions between the old and the new.


Goyo studied Western Art at Tokyo Art School and graduated top of his class in 1905. He loved the Arts & Crafts and Art Nouveau movements from Europe, and earned his living producing Art Nouveau illustrations for books (some 700 in all) and graphics for department store advertisements and so on.


The Japanese seem to consider Goyo’s art from this period to be very Western, but of course Arts & Crafts and Art Nouveau were strongly influenced by Japanese art, so Goyo’s work was really a seamless fusion of East and West.


A growing respect for tradition


In 1911 Goyo received national acclaim for a poster he produced for Mitsukoshi, a department store chain founded by a wandering kimono seller in 1673, and which still exists today. Goyo’s poster of a woman was in the style of an old Japanese woodblock print.


This poster seemed to mark the beginning of a growing passion in Goyo for traditional Japanese art. He became an expert on the history of famous artists of the past such as Hiroshige and Utamaro, and published several scholarly articles on them. He seemed to particularly admire the images of stylish and beautiful women produced over a century earlier by the revered artist Utamaro. Goyo produced his first woodblock print (Bathing, right) in 1915 at the age of 35. A woodblock print publisher named Watanabe arranged production. Goyo supplied the image and helped to guide Watanabe’s carvers and printers.


Recreating history


This experience inspired Goyo to set up his own print team in his house. In Japan, there is a time-honoured zen tradition of working towards perfection through relentless, pure, clear-minded practice. This applies to fields from archery to ikebana. Goyo applied this approach to the craft of woodblock prints.


At this time, many in Japan were voicing concern that almost all the best woodblock prints of the last two centuries had gone to the West. This particularly applied to the swirling landscapes of Hokusai and the timeless beauties of Utamaro. Goyo decided to recreate these Japanese masterpieces and many others. He gathered the best woodblock carvers and printers, and began an arduous process of recreating some 200 great works. Each was meticulously redrawn, recarved and reprinted. The resulting prints were eagerly snapped up by wealthy Japanese collectors despite costing considerably more than most woodblock prints.   


The first Goyo Hashiguchi originals


As well as recreating old masterpieces Goyo was making his own drawings. In 1918, once the production of the masterpieces was complete, Goyo began work on his own woodblock prints based on his drawings. The unparalleled experience Goyo had gained from recreating old prints enabled Goyo and his team to produce woodblock prints of unprecedented mastery. The prints took a lot of time and effort to make, and sold for remarkably high prices to influential Japanese patrons. Goyo’s prints were not well known in the West at this time because they were produced in small print runs for an elite Japanese audience.  


Between 1918 and 1921 Goyo produced 13 prints: five landscapes and eight images of women. Goyo’s favourite model for these images was a young woman called Tomi. Tomi featured in the 1915 print produced by Watanabe. It is Tomi we see in most of the 1918-1921 prints. We don’t know much about Tomi, but I can’t help wondering if Tomi had any inkling that her involvement would result in her achieving an immortality of sorts. A hundred years later, thousands of people in every corner of the globe have seen Tomi, and I suspect that will continue to be true a thousand years from now. Perhaps it is a mark of great art that it can transform the ephemeral into something iconic and immortal.  


In 1918 Goyo produced Beauty Applying Makeup (above right), which may have been inspired by Utamaro’s 1795 image of the same name. He continued with such masterpieces as Woman in a Summer Kimono (right).


Goyo’s most famous image is 1920’s Woman Combing Her Hair (below right - often called simply Combing Hair in Japanese). This is one of the most iconic images in Japanese art, reproduced countless thousands of times in books and photographic prints.


The last Goyo Hashiguchi prints


Sadly, these 14 prints (the Watanabe one and the 13 Goyo produced) were destined to be Goyo’s only output. Goyo Hashiguchi was not a healthy man. He suffered from beriberi (which was not uncommon at the time because the rice diet did not provide enough B vitamins) and he also contracted meningitis. His thirteenth and last print - Hot Spring Hotel (below right) - was supervised from his bed. Goyo passed away before finalising the colours. The year was 1921 and Goyo was just 40 years old.  


Goyo’s life story is possibly one of the great art stories of Japan. It involves East and West, tradition and new. It involves the zen process of dedication, practice, mastery and attainment. It involves all too briefly achieving virtuosity - and then passing away too soon to be able to build on that legacy. To the Japanese it is a moving story because it encompasses so much of the Eastern sense of the poignance of life.


The world moves on


After Goyo’s death, his name gradually faded from view. In 1923 a massive earthquake struck Tokyo and destroyed the woodblocks, preventing any more prints being made. The prints that did exist were seldom seen because they were hoarded by an intensely private Japanese elite. Goyo’s older brother and nephew produced some different prints from drawings Goyo left behind, but somehow they don’t quite manage to look like true Goyos. Another factor that caused Goyo to be all but forgotten was that woodblock prints were simply not in fashion: Japan’s focus was on modernity and the future, not the past.


In Europe, Goyo’s works were little known, although in the US they gained considerable coverage in 1930 when shown as part of a Japanese art exhibition in Ohio. However they sold poorly because they cost ten times as much as other exhibited prints (Goyo’s works were priced at $20 and $30, whereas modest $2 and $3 flower and bird prints sold well).


Goyo rediscovered


In Japan, Goyo was ‘rediscovered’ in 1970 by a Tokyo art gallery owner. He staged an influential Goyo exhibition. At the same time, Goyo’s family commissioned some woodblock reprints to mark the 50th anniversary of Goyo’s death. This was a considerable undertaking. Expert carvers at a traditional woodblock publisher called Tanseisha recreated the wooden blocks with meticulous Japanese accuracy. Paper was recreated at a traditional paper mill which was still in the hands of the same family that had made paper in Goyo’s time.


Expert printers worked tirelessly to produce prints that matched the remarkable quality of the originals. As with the originals, the print runs were quite small and the prints were sold for high prices.


The gallery owner who rediscovered Goyo also found Goyo’s original preparatory drawings, and in 1976 he produced lithographs of them.


In the 1980s another publisher called Yuyudo produced woodblock reprints in slightly larger numbers which were virtually as good as the family-authorised ones. More reprints began to reach the West. Goyo’s worldwide reputation grew. In 2011 Watanabe (the firm which produced Goyo’s first woodblock print and is still in existence a century later) produced more reprints, possibly using Yuyudo’s blocks.


Since all these reprints were hand made by craftsmen, numbers were inevitably limited, and the growing worldwide recognition of Goyo meant that demand exceeded supply. The price of originals and reprints began to rise. Today, an original ‘Woman Combing Her Hair’ sells for around $15,000-$18,000 and a reprint for around $800-$1200.


We could say these prices are ridiculously high for a piece of paper, or ridiculously low for some of the greatest Japanese art of all time.



More about Goyo

Here is a biography of Goyo on Wikipedia:

More Goyo images

The two best reference sources for Japanese print images are probably
ukiyo-e.org and JAODB. Here are links to their Goyo sections. A couple of other good references are listed as well.

Goyo artwork in detail

I have produced very clear high-resolution images of Goyo’s masterpiece ‘Woman Combing Her Hair’:

Thanks for taking a look at this page about the life of
Japanese woodblock print artist Hashiguchi Goyo.


Detailed photographs of the iconic work
‘Woman Combing Her Hair’ are available here.


Contact: ray(at)rapkerg.com
(replace “at” with the usual @ symbol)