Gregg Hertzlieb on Sadao Watanabe: Listening
Sadao Watanabe (1913-1996)
Hand colored Kappazuri dyed stencil print on Momigami (crumpled) paper
Edition of 510 plus 10 artist’s proofs
University Fund Purchase
Brauer Museum of Art, 2010.01
One of the finest recent additions to the Brauer Museum of Art’s permanent collection, and a featured piece in the museum’s major exhibition of Sadao Watanabe’s stencil prints, is a Kappazuri dyed stencil print on Momigami paper entitled Listening, 1960. One of the earliest prints in the Brauer’s exhibition by this Japanese Christian artist, it endures as a particularly powerful image in his career, one that gained Watanabe respect and attention during his lifetime.
Sadao Watanabe (1913-1996) became a Christian at age seventeen after struggling with a life-threatening illness and praying for recovery. The biblical prints he created for so many years demonstrate the artist’s sensitivity in capturing the essence of a particular narrative, as well as his reverence for his chosen subject matter. Perhaps the most complex aspect of his art, however, is his blending of a modern Japanese print style (itself evolved from representational styles seen in traditional Ukiyo-e) with Western, Christian subjects. The effect is medieval in appearance, even resembling products of stained glass. European medieval art is rooted in a blending of Eastern and Western styles, given the historical developments of this period, and so Watanabe’s work presents visually another example of such blending. The graphic black outlining of forms is the sinuous, elegant linework of Ukiyo-e writ large, while the overall roughness and directness of execution represents modern Japanese printmaking’s reaction to Ukiyo-e and more refined traditional approaches.
The print Listening is less specific an illustration of a Bible story than most of Watanabe’s prints, although both Watanabe collector Anne H. H. Pyle and curator of the Brauer’s exhibition Richard H. W. Brauer point to chapter 13, verse 9 of Matthew which says (in the Revised Standard Version of the Bible) “He who has ears, let him hear.” Watanabe created the print in response to a 1959 contest James A. Michener held, where he and a publisher invited modern Japanese print artists to submit original prints so that winning entries might be published in a large format, limited edition 1962 book that highlighted significant developments in this artistic area. Watanabe’s Listening was chosen for inclusion in this book (with an edition of 510; the publisher also produced a mass market version that included offset reproductions, rather than hand-pulled impressions of the prints), and as a guide for viewers Watanabe offered the following quote:
I have always aspired to portray stories and episodes from the Bible. In this disturbed world, I would like to be able to heed the voice of Heaven. The person shown in this print is no one in particular but was created in this spirit.
(James A. Michener, The Modern Japanese Print: An Appreciation, Rutland, VT and Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1962, p. 30)
While, as Watanabe mentions, the identity of the person is not specific, viewers can imagine the figure as metaphorically representing the artist and can too identify with the figure in their own attempts to hear a divine voice. Richard Brauer chose the title for the exhibition and accompanying catalogue, Heeding the Voice of Heaven: Sadao Watanabe Biblical Stencil Prints, because of the poignance of the artist’s words in relation to this work and to his biblical prints overall.
Watanabe’s technique for creating this print was actually adapted from stencil printing used on kimono. The artist would cut out a stencil, put the stencil underneath a piece of printing paper on a light table, paint on the color areas by hand using the stencil as a guide, put the stencil on top of the painted sheet and also place a silk screen, cover the screen and paper surface with a wheat paste resist, cover the paper surface with black ink, remove the screen and stencil, and then wash off the wheat paste and residual black ink so that the black only printed onto the unprotected areas of the paper. Thus, Watanabe was able to produce multiple impressions but each image having a unique character. The Brauer Museum’s print Listening is generally like every other extant impression of this print, even though it is slightly different from all those others. Other quotes from the artist make clear that this multiple approach to his art-making relates to his desire to spread the Christian message to as wide an audience as possible.
In an ambiguous environment of ribbonlike, plantlike forms, a highly stylized figure not clearly Japanese in his features or even in the style in which he is represented raises a long-fingered hand to cup his ear to listen. Unmodulated red, green, yellow, and white areas of color are separated by a structure of black lines and shapes, with the overall configuration resembling early Tarot cards. The distortions of the figure, its ghostly white face, the contrast between angular elements and curves, and the image’s red background all contribute to a feeling that may be somewhat scary. Watanabe’s listener is the viewer who, moving through life and surrounded by potential peril at every turn, may feel fear in his heart. In such moments of fear, perhaps a faint voice of comfort or assurance rides on the air currents to reach a receptive ear. It is a rare and wonderful work of art that both conjures familiar feelings and inspires the viewer to stay open to the healing mysteries of the spirit.
Gregg Hertzlieb is Curator and Director of the Brauer Museum of Art at Valparaiso University. Hertzlieb is the editor of the books The Calumet Region: An American Place (Photographs by Gary Cialdella), published in 2009, and Domestic Vision: Twenty-Five Years of the Art of Joel Sheesley (2008), as well as a contributor to The Indiana Dunes Revealed: The Art of Frank V. Dudley (2006). He has been awarded the Edward L. Ryerson Traveling Fellowship by the School of the Art Institute in Chicago and a Conant Writing Award for Poetry from Millikin University. His artwork has been exhibited widely, including at the Aron Packer Gallery, August House Studio, the Central School of Art and Design in London, Columbia College, Elgin Community College, the Goodman Theater, and Struve Gallery.