Ohara Koson is considered by many to be the foremost 20th century designer of bird and flower prints, or kacho-e. His designs were produced in prolific numbers for a primarily Western market and range from haunting realism to humorous depictions of animals at play.
Koson was born with the name Ohara Matao in the northern city of Kanazawa. He studied Shijo school painting with the artist Susuki Kason and during this time, he took the artist's name Koson, perhaps as a variation on his teacher's name. Around the turn of the century, Koson took a teaching position at the Tokyo School of Fine Arts where he encountered Ernest Fenollosa, an American with a passion for Japanese art and culture. Fenollosa was the curator of Japanese art for the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and had previously lived in Japan. He persuaded Koson to send a large number of bird and flower paintings to the United States where there was a growing interest in traditional Japanese art.
During the early 1900's, Koson also began to work with several print publishers in Tokyo. He designed several Russo-Japanese war prints and genre landscapes, but his main interest was in bird and flower prints. Early on, he had several paintings made into color woodblock prints by the Kokkeido publishing house, owned by Akiyama Buemon. Koson also worked with the Daikokuya Company, owned by Matsuki Heikichi, and Nishinomiya Yosaku. His early woodblock prints are notable for their muted colors, long narrow formats, and small margins. The majority of these prints were exported to the United States and Europe.
In 1912, Koson changed his artist's name to Shoson and decided to dedicate his energies entirely to painting. However many people believe that he continued to design prints after 1912, still using the name 'Koson'. This issue may never be resolved because Koson's early prints are not dated and bear a variety of seemingly random signature seals. There are, however, differences in style and printing techniques which strongly suggest that some Koson prints were produced during the early Taisho period. In particular, the print "Lotus" has a brighter palette and bokashi (gradated) printing that is very characteristic of Taisho era art.
After the catastrophic 1923 earthquake and resulting fire, the woodblock print industry was reeling. The shin hanga publisher, Watanabe Shozaburo, reopened in 1924 and recruited several of Japan's most accomplished artists, including Shoson, to help rebuild his print business. Watanabe began publishing Shoson's designs in 1926. These prints, published in both oban and otanzaku sizes, use much brighter colors than the earlier 'Koson' prints. Perhaps Watanabe felt that more colorful prints would do better in the Western market. Nearly all of Shoson's prints were sent abroad to raise much needed capital. In Japan, there was little interest in kacho-e until many years later. When Japanese scholars wanted to study Shoson's prints in the 1970s, they had to import his prints from the United States.
Shoson continued to work with Watanabe throughout the 1930's and his prints were displayed at both of the Toledo exhibitions in 1930 and 1936. Shoson also worked with the publisher Kawaguchi & Sakai during this time. He used the name 'Hoson' on prints published by Kawaguchi & Sakai. As World War II began to escalate, materials were rationed and most printmaking was curtailed. Ohara Shoson died in 1945 at the age of sixty-eight. His kacho-e prints continue to be appreciated as among the finest examples of animal and botanical portraiture produced by the shin hanga movement.