HODAKA YOSHIDA IN HISTORICAL CONTEXT
by Gene Skibbe
[Here Japanese names are given in Western order, family name last.]
Yoshida became an artist in one of the most chaotic periods in Japanese art history. In 1945, immediately after the Second
World War, people in Japan realized that many of their traditional social structures had collapsed, and that they somehow
had to create new ones. Uncertainty, experimentation, and rapid change followed. Artists went through this volatile period
like everyone else.
How did this situation influence Hodaka Yoshida’s development? With what key people
and movements did he have contact, and how might they have influenced him?
Regardless of what would happen to Hodaka
after the war, the family he had been born into was the first major influence. The Yoshida family had a rich artistic heritage
that reached back several generations. It began with Hodaka’s grandfather, Kasaburô, an early Western-style artist.
It continued with Hodaka's father, Hiroshi, his mother, Fujio, and his brother, Toshi, each an important artist. Toshi, 15
years older than Hodaka, would inherit the Yoshida Studio in Tokyo and carry on its tradition. According to his father’s
plan, Hodaka would be something else, perhaps a scientist. However in 1944-1945, when he was 19 years old and with the war
ending, Hodaka ignored that plan. He had already been writing avant-garde Japanese poetry. He began now, secretly, to experiment
with painting abstract oils. His father disdained abstract art - yet that was precisely the path Hodaka chose.
might seem as if the family would have had a negative influence on Hodaka’s life, but that was not the case. Hodaka
had been born out of a certain gene pool, and into a particular family mentality, and all of that was good. He grew up surrounded
by artists and art. He was able to see his father painting with oils and the studio artisans creating his father’s woodblock
prints. Hodaka said much later that, although his father had spurned his own artistic efforts, he had nevertheless provided
for him a rich artistic environment. There is something else his father had inadvertently given him, namely, the freedom not
to be the heir to the Studio, the freedom not to be constantly under his father’s strict domination, as was happening
to his brother. Hodaka instead inherited a large dose of his father’s independent spirit, determination, and artistic
talent. That, in fact, was the real foundation for his becoming an artist of his own choosing, in a rapidly changing society,
following his own career path.
In the years immediately after 1945, young people, if not totally disillusioned,
were filled with heady optimism, thinking they could now do anything their hearts desired. The prewar art establishment had
been controlled by the government, and that had collapsed. In its stead, the new sponsors for major exhibitions were the Japan
Art Association (Nihon) and the major Japanese newspapers. These new exhibits were called “Indepéndents,”
a new format, French in origin, that guaranteed exhibitions open to all artists, with no juries, and no prizes.
exhibited his early oils in the Second Nihon Indepéndent exhibition in 1948, then in the First Yomiuri Indepéndent
in 1949. These new structures provided an immediate public for his oil paintings. The response to his work was very positive.
Since 1949 Hodaka had also been experimenting with woodblock prints. In 1951, when Hodaka and his fiancée,
Chizuko Inoue, exhibited their oils together, Hodaka also exhibited a few of his new woodblock prints. In 1952 he was invited
by the Japan Print Association to enter his prints in their annual exhibit. Again, the response was encouraging. Many important
things happened the next year. He and Chizuko married, then he built a small house behind his parental home, and then they
both joined the new Abstract Art Club established that year. By 1953 Hodaka had made 36 woodblock prints.
to this, Chizuko had been developing her own career as an artist. Now because of her, Hodaka met many of the leading artists
of that time. One of Chizuko’s teachers in oil painting was Fumio Kitaoka, from whom she learned a modernist treatment
of realism. Then in 1949 she became a member of Tarô Okamoto’s Study Group of Avant-Garde Art. Then in 1953 Chizuko
also began making woodblock prints. She began attending Kôshirô Onchi’s private art seminar. By this time
Onchi had become the revered patriarch of the growing sôsaku hanga print movement.
Although, by way of Chizuko,
Hodaka was introduced to various avant-garde art leaders in Japan at the time, any influence by them on Hodaka was at most
indirect or ancillary.
But what about the most radical artists and movements of that time? Alexandra Munroe in
her book, Scream against the Sky: Japanese Art after 1945, provides the most recent research on this period. The times were
chaotic, with episodes of anarchism. Through Chizuko, and in more general ways, Hodaka had contact with some of these people,
but he never joined a radical art movement, nor did he emulate any of their leaders. He had no contact with the Gutai Group,
Neo-Dada, Anti-Art, or Hi Red Center.
He did have contact with Art Informel, a French movement. In 1956 he was
invited to enter their exhibit in Tokyo, “An International Exhibition of Modern Art/The World Today Exhibition.”
He entered one of the most important pieces in his career, the large monoprint “Magician” 1956. Yet, this work
had little or nothing in common with the others. The “Informel whirlwind,” which swept up so many Japanese artists,
left Hodaka unscathed.
One very important leader in this larger context was Tarô Okamoto, the artist and
art critic. Chizuko had been in his seminar about 1949. Hodaka, however, had never attended and, according to Chizuko, also
had not read Okamoto’s books on primitive art in Japan.
For Hodaka, the energy he sensed in artifacts is
still deep within all of us, but in most modern people it is covered over by layers of civilizing habits. In his art and through
it, he wanted to arouse this primitive spark again. Hodaka’s orientation in art was not ethnocentric like Okamoto’s,
but broadly human and international.
Hodaka pursued this vision for 40 years, using his woodblock prints to reveal
that suppressed inner human quality. He had full confidence in his artistic vision and work, and he was not distracted from
that, even by the turbulent forces of the postwar era and the later changes in Japanese life.
The avenue he took
in bringing his work to the public was to exhibit, first, in the Indepéndents, then in exhibits he himself organized,
and finally in the growing phenomenon of international art biennials in leading cities around the world. That avenue both
channeled and guaranteed his independence.
The print exhibitions of the College Women’s Association in Japan
are an example of this. In the 40 exhibitions they mounted in Tokyo between 1956 and 1995, Hodaka entered 35 times, with a
total of 75 prints, year after year offering some of his very best work. During that time the number of new technologies for
making prints increased dramatically, from 1956 when all entries were woodblock prints, to 1995 when only about one-fourth
of the entries were in that one medium. Hodaka was on the cutting edge in using new technologies. For example, his 1963 print
“Key,” a combination of lithograph and woodblock, was the first such print to appear in the CWAJ. Much the same
was true in 1970 for his prints using photo zinc relief plates together with woodblocks.
There is one more important
influence on his work, and that was Hodaka’s frequent and broad range of foreign travel.
All of the Yoshida
artists, over four generations, had been involved in foreign travel. All had been influenced by it. Yet, no one benefited
more from this stimulus than Hodaka.
It is difficult to tell exactly how many countries Hodaka visited over his
lifetime, but it amounts to at least 36. The importance of his experience in New York City and Mexico in 1955 has already
been mentioned. (See page 1, the introduction to this web site.) By 1965 he had visited the United States, Cuba, Mexico, England,
France, Holland, Spain, Italy, Egypt, India, Thailand, Hong Kong, Yugoslavia, Brazil, and Peru. In 1972 he added Australia,
New Guinea, and Bali; in 1977 he went to Guatemala, Panama, Costa Rico, Nicaragua, Honduras, and China; two years later, in
1979, his destinations were Poland, Austria, and Taiwan; in 1983 he went to Finland, Sweden, and Norway; in the next year,
1984, it was to the USSR (Moscow and Azerbaijan); in 1986 he added Bulgaria, Turkey, Greece, and Columbia; and finally in
1992 he went to South Korea.
When extensive travel is correlated with the prints Hodaka produced during this time,
it is clear that his experiences in various cultures had a direct influence. Furthermore, the greater the range of common
everyday artifacts he saw, the deeper he was taken into the inner life and power of the human being and human culture. It
stimulated his imagination and drove his work throughout his entire career.
Looked at within his own specific
art historical context, Hodaka is a good example of a Japanese artist who remained independent, while being fully engaged
in the international art world and its clientele. In all final respects, Hodaka Yoshida was a profoundly talented artist,
who avoided social protest and personal exhibitionism, while appealing to our deepest human sensibilities. He was "cosmopolitan"
in the best sense of the word.