SPOTLIGHT: December, 2023

Winter in Aizu

Saitō Kiyoshi, Japanese, 1907–1997
Winter in Aizu, c. 1939–41
Woodblock print, 15 x 18 in.

Before the snow begins to fall in New England, this wintry scene by Japanese artist Saitō Kiyoshi reminds us of the season ahead. This image is from a winter series that Saitō created depicting his home in the city of Aizu. It is one of the artist’s multiple winter compositions, as Winter in Aizu was a recurrent theme throughout his career. This version of Winter in Aizu shows three figures walking down a snowy, neighborhood street beneath snow-covered rooftops. A gray-colored ink was used to create the winter sky and shadows in the snow drifts along the street. The artist’s inclusion of the utility poles and power lines suggests the post-industrial timeframe. One can imagine how quiet the city might have been covered in a thick blanket of snow.

Saitō’s early experimentation with woodblock printing led to an exhibition at the Japanese Print Association in 1936. In 1937-38, the artist made a nostalgic trip to his early childhood home in the Fukushima Prefecture and made at least eight similar compositions a short time later. Originally a sign painter, Saitō studied painting and drawing and eventually sold his sign shop to pursue art full-time. He experimented with woodblock printing, eventually making it his primary medium. Saitō became a prominent member of the Sōsaku-hanga (creative print) movement which emphasized self-expression and the artist as the singular creator of an image. This was different from traditional ukiyo-e printmaking, which encouraged a collaborative philosophy.

In 1951, Japan participated in its first international art competition after World War II, the Sao Paulo, Brazil, Biennial. Saitō won first prize for his woodblock print, Steady Gaze. It was surprising that a woodblock print was selected for the top award instead of a painting or sculpture, which was traditionally the case. This distinction was a turning point for Japanese printmakers, as for the first time in Japanese history, prints surpassed other genres. Carl Weyerhaeuser purchased several prints from Saitō’s Winter in Aizu series in the 1960s that later became part of the Art Complex Museum’s collection.

Winter in Aizu, c. 1939-1941