Lotus Flower and a Dragonfly by Ohara Hōson Shōson
Ohara Hōson Shōson The Japanese Painter of Nature
Ohara Koson, also known as Ohara Hōson or Ohara Shōson, was a Japanese painter and woodblock print designer of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, part of the shin-hanga ("new prints") movement.
Photograph of Koson around the age of 53
If you’ve read some of my earlier blogs about other Asian artists, you’ll notice that it was very common to use what are called “Art Names” or pseudonyms, (called gō in Japanese, or hao in Mandarin), which some artists adopted at different stages of their career to mark significant changes in their life or work. Extreme practitioners of this tendency were Tang Yin of the Ming dynasty, who had more than ten hao, and Hokusai of Japan, who in the period 1798 to 1806 alone used no fewer than six. In Ohara’s case, he was born Ohara Matao (Ohara is the family surname), and during his lifetime, used several different "go" names, including Shoson, Koson, and Hoson.
Boat and Setting Sun by Ohara Koson Shoson by Ohara Hōson Shōson
Little is known about Ohara. He was born in Kanazawa in Ishikawa Prefecture in the North of Japan around 1877. It is thought that he started training at the Ishikawa Prefecture Technical School in 1889–1893, where he studied painting and design, and studied with the painter Suzuki Kason (1860-1908) either while there or after he moved to Tokyo. It is likely that he received his first “go” (artist’s name) Koson from Kason.
Ohara’s career bridged the era between the decline of the full-color woodblock print (nishiki-e) in the late 19th and early 20th century, and the emergence of the Shin-hanga ("new print") movement in the 1910s.
Two women in the snow on Yanagi Bridge by Ohara Hōson Shōson
Around 1900 he became a teacher at the Tokyo Bijutsu Gakko (Tokyo School of Fine Arts), where he is said to have met the American Ernest Fenollosa (1853-1908), then a professor at the Tokyo Imperial University, now the University of Tokyo, and an advocate of the traditional Japanese arts. Under Fenollosa’s encouragement, Koson began producing kachō-e (bird and flower) prints and exhibiting his paintings and woodcuts in the United States. Now considered the most important and prolific kachō-e artist, Ohara created around 500 prints and met with great success in the Western world, particularly the United States and Europe. He has only recently received attention in his native Japan following the discovery of important reference material including original sketches and paintings for his prints.
While in Tokyo, he produced many ukiyo-e triptychs illustrating episodes of the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) and earned his money with them. However, the bulk of his art were prints of birds-and-flowers (kachō-e). At first, he worked with publishers Akiyama Buemon (Kokkeidō) and Matsuki Heikichi (Daikokuya), This was where he signed his work Koson.
In 1912 Ohara changed his go name to Shoson the name that he produced for approximately the next fourteen years he dedicated himself primarily to painting Birds and Flowers. It is thought that during this time he did design a few more woodblock prints under the name Koson.
Bluebird on a Plum Tree by Ohara Hōson Shōson
Ohara began publishing prints with Watanabe Shozaburo after the 1923 Great Kantō Earthquake. Watanabe was an employer of highly skilled carvers and printers, and commissioned artists to design prints that combined traditional Japanese techniques with elements of contemporary Western painting, such as perspective and shadows. Watanabe coined the term shin-hanga in 1915 to describe such prints. Much of Watanabe’s company's stockpile of both prints and their original printing-blocks was destroyed in the Great Kantō earthquake of 1923. When Watanabe was able to reopen his business after the devastating earthquake, he recruited Japan’s premiere shin-hanga artists, including Ohara, to help rebuild the woodblock print business.
Mallard Ducks in Flight by Ohara Hōson Shōson
In the following years, new versions of many of these prints were created, using re-carved blocks; typically, the re-issued "post-quake" prints included changes and revisions in the designs. When Ohara began publishing with Watanabe, he adopted the go “Shoson”. His prints are generally not dated and frequently without publisher seals. Watanabe began publishing Shoson’s prints in 1926.
The subject matter and style of Shôson's prints appealed to the Western market and thus much of his work was intended for export. His compositional style and marketing significantly affected how his works were viewed in Japan, as he was considered an artist somewhat outside the circle of those who designed prints for Japanese taste.
Sparrows on Bamboo by Ohara Hōson Shōson
Through his association with Watanabe, Ohara's work was exhibited abroad, and his prints sold well, particularly in the United States. He was active designing prints until at least 1935 and died at his home in Tokyo in 1945.
Water Lily Flower by Ohara Hōson Shōson
Ohara’s work is held in museums worldwide, including the Toledo Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the British Museum, the University of Michigan Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Harvard Art Museums, the Carnegie Museum of Art, and the Museum of New Zealand.
The Manggha museum in Krakow, Poland held a large retrospective in 2021 from the collection of Romanian musical artist Adrian Ciceu, brother of Eugen Cicero.
Magpie Bird in Tree By Ohara Hōson Shōson