After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, love, and so on — have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear — what remains?” the aging Walt Whitman asked in his diary as he contemplated what makes life worth living while recovering from a paralytic stroke, then answered: “Nature remains… the trees, fields, the changes of seasons — the sun by day and the stars of heaven by night. A century after Whitman’s birth, on the other side of a globe newly disillusioned with its humanity after the First World War, a young Japanese man was embarking on a life of celebrating the inexhaustible consolations of nature in uncommonly poetic visual art.
Born into a Tokyo family of rope and thread merchants, Hasui Kawase (May 18, 1883–November 7, 1957) grew up dreaming of becoming an artist. His parents pressed him to continue in their path. Still, he persisted in following his own, drawing quiet inspiration from the example of his maternal uncle — the creator of the first manga magazine.
He did take over the family business, but he was moonlighting in art while running it — sketching from nature, copying one master’s woodblock prints, learning brush painting from another.
When the business went bankrupt in the early twentieth century, the twenty-six-year-old Kawase devoted himself wholly to art, apprenticing with one of the great masters of transitional Japanese woodblock printing. The master rejected him, encouraging him to broaden his sensibility and develop his style by studying Western painting first. The young man obliged.
Two years later, he applied again.
The master accepted him, conferring upon him the lyrical name Hasui — an ideogram of his family name fused with the word of his boyhood school, most closely translated as “water springing from the source.”
Hasui was thirty-five — the age Whitman was when he staggered the world with his Leaves of Grass — when he made his artistic debut with a series of experimental woodblock prints depicting the mostly empty streets of Tokyo and the unpeopled landscapes of the countryside.