Against All Odds – The Life & Times of Azechi Umetaro

Woodblock titled Mt. Fuji #2 by Azechi Umetaro (1979). Image from ukiyo-e.org

Azechi Umetaro knew from a young age that all he wanted to be was an artist. However, he was born to a poor farming family in the remote village of Uwajima, about 900 kilometres (559 miles) from the city of Tokyo.

Ordinarily, this would not be impossible circumstances to surmount. But then, he was born in 1902 and this was the Japanese period known as the Meiji Era.

The Japanese government had thrown open the doors to Westernization in order to catch up with Western imperialist powers. All the technology, arts culture and industries were pouring in to Japan for the first time. The modern railways were just being constructed.

And all of it was passing Azechi by.

You could say he was extremely unfortunate.

Legend has it that he was able to arrange a meetup with the legendary Meiji period ukiyo-e artist, Kiyochika Kobayashi, through a chance encounter with the artist’s sister. However the much older Kobayashi was extremely dismissive of young Azechi’s work and their encounter was unpleasant to say the least.

But he never considered giving up. In fact, it spurred him to improve his work.

In his teens he paid to enroll in an art correspondence course where he would send his work to Tokyo for critique. And in 1920, before he turned 18 years old, he had the chance to make the long journey to Tokyo and continue his art correspondence course in person. He managed to get a job delivering newspapers which enabled him to stay on in Tokyo.

But in September 1923, tragedy struck again. The great Kanto earthquake devastated Tokyo and claimed more than 140,000 lives. Azechi survived, but unable to continue his art studies, he returned to his hometown to once again become a farmer. They needed him too, as by now the economy was booming and farming was increasingly crucial in order to sustain the rapidly growing population of the major cities.

Once again, extremely unlucky.

Two years later, Azechi was back in Tokyo to continue his dream. He landed a government job with The National Printing Bureau. During his free time there, he began tinkering with the company’s engraving plates and making prints despite having no past experience.

In the summer of 1937, Azechi’s government work sent him to the mountainous regions of Karuizawa in the Nagano Prefecture. There, he created many images of Mt. Asama. His love for mountain life became a theme of his art that would influence him for the rest of his career. Despite his work commitments, he would spend as much time in the mountains as he could. Before this, his art had been labeled as derivative of the old masters. But now he was starting to grow into his avant-garde signature style.

Woodblock of Mt. Asama. Image from ukiyo-e.org
Mt. Ishizuchi (1940), Image from Ukiyo-e.org

His work caught the attention of Unichi Hiratsuka, another legend, who supported Azechi and took him under his wing. Through this network, he gained access to art exhibitions and received training from other successful artists.

With this network in place, there was no going back. He quit his job with the government and became a freelance artist. But the going was tough and he was finding it hard to make ends meet. Sources say that Hiratsuka would sometimes offer him dinner as Azechi would not have enough money to eat.

Then came third time unlucky. Once again he was separated from his art and the mountain life.

It was now World War 2. He was required to serve the military during the Pacific War and was stationed in Manchuria for a year.

Still he persevered, and things got dramatically better after the war. His art had found a steadily growing demand in the Western world, particularly in the United States. One of his customers (and friend) was the renown novelist James A. Michener.

He also took part in three major print Biennales in Tokyo, Lugano and Sao Paolo. It had taken him some forty plus years, but now he was finally making a decent living from his art and spending most of his time mountaineering.

Woodblock titled ‘Mountain Main’ (1968). Image from Ukiyo-e.org

Azechi Umetaro died at the grand old age of 97 in 1999, the luckiest person in the world.

Today, his prints can be found in major museum collections all over the world including San Francisco, Chicago and London.

Research:
https://www.artelino.com/articles/umetaro_azechi.asp
https://ottiliastephens.com/2018/07/04/atelier-u-and-the-work-of-umetaro-azechi/
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Umetaro_Azechi
https://ukiyo-e.org/artist/azechi-umetaro
Modern Japanese Prints – An Appreciation (by James A. Michener)

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