Biography of Koson Ohara
Kacho-e is the Japanese word for prints of birds and flowers. And Koson Ohara is the best-known printmaker for kacho-e in the twentieth century. At lifetime his prints were exported in large numbers to the United States.
Koson Ohara was born in 1877 in Kanazawa in Ishikawa Prefecture in the North of Japan with the given name Ohara Matao. He had studied Japanese painting as an art student of Suzuki Koson, whose name he adopted as his artist go. During his career he changed his name to Shoson and Hoson. So when you read Ohara Shoson or Ohara Hoson or the other way round as Shoson Ohara or Hoson Ohara, don’t be confused. It is the same artist.
In 1904 Koson made Russo-Japanese war prints. That was nothing unusual. Practically all ukiyo-e artists of the time had produced war illustration prints either of the Sino-Japanese (1894/95) or the Russo-Japanese (1904/05) war.
At the time of the Russo-Japanese war, the art of ukiyo-e had come out of fashion and nearly out of business. While the prints with scenes of the Sino-Japanese war (1894-1895) were sometimes sold out within one day, only few were interested in ukiyo-e anymore ten years later. Photography had replaced the woodblock print as a way of illustrating news events.
The Shin Hanga Artist
Ohara Koson was at least not economically affected by the decline of ukiyo-e. He had a steady income as a teacher at the Tokyo School of Fine Arts.
Koson had an American colleague, Ernest Fenellosa, at the Art School. He was an advocate of traditional Japanese art and ironically he was the one who convinced Koson to make woodblock prints in traditional style. His first flower and bird prints in tanzaku format were published by Matsuki Heikichi.
After returning to painting, Koson resumed the design of Kacho-e prints in 1926. Most of them were published by Watanabe Shozaburo, the initiator of the Shin Hanga movement. Practically all prints made by Ohara Koson were exported to the USA. At that time the Japanese had lost any sense for their traditional values. Since the late nineteenth century, Japanese art, old and new, was exported to Europe and North America in considerable quantities.
The Art of Koson Prints
Koson Ohara bird and animal prints remind the viewer somewhat of watercolors. This is not astonishing looking at the artist’s origins as a painter in watercolors and oil. His kacho-e were performed with an extremely high degree of craftsmanship. Details like the bird’s plumage are carefully executed. Of course, the merits for the execution of the carving and printing goes to Watanabe’s artisans. Let’s remember, Koson made the designs, the rest was done by the carvers and printers. That was the concept of shin hanga taken over from the old ukiyo-e team work idea.
Koson Ohara used different signatures and seals over the years. The precise dating of his prints is sometimes difficult if not impossible. As a rule of thumb, the Koson prints made after 1923, the year of the great earthquake in Japan, have brighter colors than his early works. Koson Ohara died in 1945 in Tokyo.