Sadao Watanabe: The Bible in Japanese Prints

November 21, 2015 - January 3, 2016

The Jubilee Museum is honored to partner with collector John Kohan of the Sacred Art Pilgrim Collection to bring Sadao Watanabe’s exquisite prints to the museum’s Fra Angelico gallery.

Sadao Watanabe (1913-1996) was Japan’s foremost Christian artist of the twentieth century. Trained as a textile dyer, he adapted a folk art technique for coloring kimonos with hand cut stencils from the Okinawan Islands to make fine art kappazuri (stencil print) images that are Christian in content and Japanese in form. He was part of a folk art movement in the mid-1920s called mingei. Like the Arts and Crafts movement in Britain, the mingei movement championed handmade objects. According to the philosopher and founder of the movement, Soetsu Yanagi, the artist-craftsman’s mission was to recover “beautify in common things” and the ugliness of modern artifacts he attributed to a “loss of faith.”

Watanabe dedicated his life to making the stories of the Bible more understandable for the Japanese. His austere figure studies show the influence of Medieval European sacred art, but the settings, the dress, and the physical gestures of the people in his prints are distinctly Japanese. Whenever Watanabe chose a biblical theme for a new print, he would first read the passage repeatedly and carefully, meditating on its theme. Then, before setting to work, he would pray. The artist considered his work to be a form of worship: “As I grow older, my work becomes less of myself and more of my lord.”

The smaller prints on display are painted on plain hand-made traditional kozo paper (made from mulberry trees) known as washi prints. The three large prints in the show are momigami (wrinkled paper) prints, where tinted mulberry paper is crumpled and stretched to create a textured effect. Each image is an original work of art, hand-printed and hand-colored by the artist.

Watanabe’s sacred art is collected by major museums and private collectors around the world. In 1964, Lady Bird Johnson chose Watanabe’s stencil prints to display in the White House during the Lyndon Johnson presidency. Today, Watanabe’s biblical prints are on display in the Vatican Museums Collection of Modern Religious Art, the Brauer Museum of Art at the University of Valparaiso, in Indiana, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the British Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, among many others.