I first met with Mr. Saito in 1971 when he was living in a suburb of Tokyo. Although my knowledge of Japanese was only fair at that time, he easily conveyed to me his enthusiasm for American collectors, especially the original U.S. serviceman who explained to him how copies of prints were done. Up to the time of this meeting, Saito had made only one copy of each.
Later, I met with him several times at his new home in Kamakura, where he lived up to the time of his wife's death. During these meetings, he explained his work to me, allowed me to photograph him during the course of his work, and of course, I purchased prints from him. One of his most interesting descriptions was how he came to do an extensive series of Winter in Aizu in the 1970s. He visited Fukushima City which was his birthplace. Since a newly constructed building of several floors had just been completed, he decided to go to the top of it. While there, he sketched the surrounding countryside with the valleys and mountains in a long series. The paper was about 13 inches vertically and extended more than twenty feet horizontally. After finishing his sketching of the complete panoramic view, he cut the paper into sections, each one large enough for a finely composed print. He then transferred the design of each onto woodblocks and the prints were eventually printed.
He was especially inspired in the Fukushima area and did a number of series of that geographic location. His series of Persimmon in Aizu, Harvest in Aizu, Houses in Aizu and others are well known. He also did a number of fine prints of the temples and shrines of Kamakura.
Up to the mid-1980s, Saito's work was sold by the galleries in Tokyo and the Hendricks Art Collection, Ltd. In 1985, a large show of his work was held at a department store in Tokyo and more than 800 copies sold within five days. That was the beginning of the mad rush for his work which continues today.
Following is an article which I published in 1981 on his work:
By Kappy Hendricks
Kiyoshi Saito, one of the grand masters of comtemporary woodblock printing, is still actively working today. Born in Aizu Prefecture in 1907, he is avidly sought by affluent Japanese galleries and department stores for one-man shows of his callagraphs, woodblock prints and sumi paintings. (Galleries in department stores provide elegant settings for art sales in Japan currently.) This attention is a change from the struggles he had early in his career when his works were almost entirely unnoticed in Japan.
In 1946, one year after the close of the war, his works were first noticed by the American Occupation Forces. Because of the interest shown by these servicemen, Saito was stimulated to continue his work.
One other result of his various encounters with "foreigners" is that he learned the true essence fo a print: That it is a multiple reproduction of an image created on wood, copper, lithographic stone or other medium. Until 1946, Saito made only one copy of each work - not realizing it was possible to product many copies of one image.
His lack of knowledge regarding printmaking was due to the fact he was enirely self-taught. He had tried to find a suitable teacher in the Aizu area where he was born. Unable to locate anyone, he eventually experimented with cutting woodblocks and printing on hand-made mulberry paper (kozo pulp). Having no guidance in the field, he simply tried block after block until he mastered the technique which marks his distinctive works of today.
Early in his career Saito used katsura wood ordered from Hokkaido. Later this type of wood became scarce, so during the last 20 years he has worked with shina nuki ( a type of plywood). His colors are water-based, and he uses the traditional baren for hand-printing.
Following the time-honored method of woodblock printing in Japan (begun in 1620), he uses one block for each of the colors in the print. His paper is Echizen Hosho (mulberry paper) which he special-orders from a paper dealer in Fukui Prefecture. This long-fibered paper is particularly absorbent and flexible, which makes it desirable for woodblock printing. His compositions are primarily in grey, beige, black and white tones, with delicate degrees of shadings.
Saito's inspiration throughout his career has been two-fold: The temples and shrines of Kyoto, Nara and Kamakura (all early capitols of Japan) and seasonal scenes of his birthplace, Aizu, in Fukushima Prefecture. He has portrayed the Shinto and Buddhist places of worship in these famous cities in different seasons, times of the day and various moods.
Aizu has been pictured in winter with mounds of snow on the softly sloping straw-thatched roofs; in spring with cherry blossoms in full bloom; in summer with red, succulent persimmons hanging from the trees; in autumn with yellow-brown fields of rice showing evidence of the harvesting process. His special interest in Aizu can be seen in the plenitude of works devoted to that area. His first subject depicting Aizu7 was done in 1939; in 1980 he completed his 41st work showing "Winter in Aizu."
In the first stage of production of his prints Saito does a pencil sketch of the area he wishes to depict. Instead of showing only the confined area of one work, he draws or sketches a panoramic view which he later divides into several prints which can be exhibited as a series. This revolutionary idea of sketching broad scenes and then cutting them into smaller sections (each section eventually becoming a print) first occurred to him five years ago.
He had been invited to the rooftop of a new hotel in Fukushima City to view the valley and mountains beyond. It was while standing on the top floor of the tallest building in the city, absorbing the enormous beauty in front of him, that he realized he shoudl sketch the entire scene and produce a series of prints from it.
Since that day, his work has followed this system. Last spring he showed me these precious drawings, unrolling them horizontally as one would unroll an ancient Japanese or Chinese scroll. The drawings extend for meters - revealing mountains, valleys, villages and river scenes in shades of white, grey and black with an occasional touch of color.
Kiyoshi Saito's subjects of simple farmhouses in snow, gates to famous temples, and occasional portrayals of girls, cats and dogs are not deeply rooted in Japanese history. His technique is closely related to the ancient technique of ukiyoe (see PRINTS, Summer 1979, pages 26-29), but his subjects are totally different.
He feels his works are not an offshoot of ukiyoe; in fact, he is not fond of the antique Japanese woodblock prints. Rather, he has been inspired by Rodin, Munch and Gauguin. Early in his career he was not privileged to see works of these masters in galleries or museums; he saw them reproduced in magazines only. But that peripheral contact with Western art was all that was necessary for Saito's quick, receptive mind to absorb the beauty of those European works and to incorporate apects of their styles with his own.
Saito took the flavor of those works and blended it with his natural Japanese heritage to produce works of utter simplicity (yet extreme complexity of technique) which are synonymous with the Oriental concept that "less is more."
His life has been marked by unusual generosity. Prints and blocks have been donated to various American museums throughout his career. The Art Institute of Chicago, The Museum of FIne Arts at Boston, and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor all contain his work.
Kiyoshi Saito's latest and most profound donation of works for the enjoyment of the public took place recently when he gave 241 of his woodblock prints, collagraphs and sketches to the Museum of Fukushima City. The gift includes works completed during 44 years of his career.
Among them are 14 sketches done while living in Paris; the print for which he won first prize at the Sao Paulo Biennale in 1951; the famous print of a vertical elegant cat which appeared in Time in 1953; the notable portrait of Prime Minister Sato done in 1968; as well as numerous prints of shrines and temples of Nara, Kyoto and Kamakura and many scenes of Aizu.
One of the provisions of this donation to Fukushima City is that the work can be made available to any American or European museum. For those of you who already are mentally contemplating a special trip to Fukushima City on your next visit to Japan, let me caution you that the museum where these works will be housed has not yet been built. It is in the planning stages and is expected to open in four years.
As Kiyoshi Saito continues to work, he looks back over his life with satisfaction. His gratitude toward Americans is obvious - if he could speak English, he would prefer to live in America. He envies artists working outside of Japan who are not constrained by class structure. They need not be concerned about those above or below them in society...they are working in an environment where class structure is not important...where talent is the only element which provides the bond between artist and artist, artist and collector, artist and museum.
His advice to young woodblock print artists in other countries is not to be too concerned about attempting to duplicate the exact materials which are available in Japan - shina nuki wood, mulberry paper and the baren. Materials at hand should be used to the best of the artist's ability.The printmaker should concentrate on each work without regard for future saleability, and use all his or her energies to portray that which is in his or her heart and mind.
Kiyoshi Saito, fortunately for collectors around the world, has followed his own advice.