Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Master of Light and Shadow: Martin Lewis and Japan Noir

Martin Lewis (1881-1962) is one of those rare printmakers who, despite being highly regarded in his heyday, was largely ignored or forgotten by the time of his death, and now is undergoing a resurgence in popularity that would make most of his contemporaries green with envy.  Today, his best prints can sell for in excess of $50,000.  Not too shabby for someone born in Castlemaine, Australia, who left home at age 15, and who essentially taught himself how to make intaglio prints.

[Self-Portrait] (c. 1939) (McCarron #130)
Recorded Impressions: 1 plus an unknown number
 of restrikes printed on an unknown date
Personal Collection (restrike version)
(etching and engraving)

To most people, the name "Martin Lewis" conjures up evocative images of Manhattan street (and rooftop) life and, when the Depression caused him to relocate to Newtown, Connecticut, haunting musings on the New England countryside.  Indeed, only five of Lewis' prints expressly depict interior scenes.  Yet for someone who clearly loved the outdoors, he paid an inordinate amount of attention to the clothes his figures were wearing, often depicting them with far more detail than he ascribed to the buildings that surrounded them.  This was a canny decision on his part, as their clothes would render the figures as individuals and inform their personalities and occupations.  Whether he showed a crowd of people going to or from work or group of young ladies going out for a night on the town, a distinctive mood is evoked.  At the high of his popularity, Lewis's prints were no doubt appreciated for being au courant.  Today, they are appreciated by many as anthropological snapshots of daily life in New York City during those bygone days of Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression that are somehow paradoxically timeless in their appeal.

 
 Windy Day (1932) (McCarron #97)
Recorded Impressions: 22 including 4 trial proofs
Courtesy of The Old Print Shop
(drypoint)

But Lewis is not some mere reporter of fashion.  The clothes worn by Lewis's figures are subtly reflective of the time of the year and the prevailing weather conditions on the day in question.  Nature, in fact, is usually a character all her own in Lewis' prints, whether it be a sunny day at the beach, a blinding rainstorm, or shadowy street corners at night.  What makes Lewis a truly outstanding printmaker, however, is his depiction of light (artificial or otherwise) and shadow through his technical mastery of various printing techniques to create a mood.  Often, particularly in his nocturnes, they anticipate the look of film noir, long before that term had been coined.  There are no gangsters, murderers, or adulterous wives in Lewis' prints, but more than a few of Lewis' women are provocatively dressed (for the time), proto-femme fatales if you will.  The well-lit street corners and store-front sidewalks may be safe, but there are ominous shadows everywhere, shadows that can convey sadness, loneliness, or alienation, that suggest furtive couplings in alleyways, and even some unknown danger lurking around the next corner.

Chance Meeting (1940-41) (McCarron #131)
Recorded Impressions: 105 plus 4 restrikes
Courtesy of The Old Print Shop
(drypoint)
 
 
Spring Night, Greenwich Village (1930) (McCarron #85)
Recorded Impressions: 92 (of an intended edition of 100), including 9 trial proofs
 Courtesy of The Old Print Shop
(drypoint and sandpaper ground)

Corner Shadows (1930) (second state) (McCarron #83 - II)
Recorded Impressions: 242 including 10 trial proofs
Courtesy of The Old Print Shop
(drypoint and sand ground)
 
Fifth Avenue Bridge (1928) (McCarron #72)
Recorded impressions: 108 including 1 trial proof
Courtesy of The Old Print Shop
(drypoint)
 
While I have long admired Lewis' work, it only about three and a half years ago that I learned that, not only had Lewis lived in Japan for a couple of years, but he had also subsequently designed fifteen largely underrated prints depicting Japanese landscapes or seascapes.  It soon become clear that Lewis' stay in Japan had a profound influence on his development as a artist, one which profoundly influenced the direction of his subsequent prints.

Passing Storm (1919) (McCarron #38)
Recorded Impressions: 55
Courtesy of The Old Print Shop
(mezzotint)

Certain hallmarks of Lewis' printmaking talent were already well on display prior to his arrival in Japan in 1920.  One need only look at his mezzotint Passing Storm to see that.  Nor can it be said that Lewis' pre-Japan work was devoid of Asian art influence.  Paul McCarron, for example, notes that the asymmetry of his composition for [Moonlit Farm Scene] with its silhouette of the tree branches superimposed over the moon suggests that Lewis was interested in Japanese ukiyo-e prints before his sojourn to Japan.  While it is known that Lewis owned a small collection of ukiyo-e prints, it is unclear when he acquired them.  In any event, when Lewis resumed printmaking in 1925, the influence of Lewis' time in Japan is palpable.

[Moonlit Farm Scene] (c. 1916) (McCarron #19)
Recorded Impressions: 1, although a second impression is known
Courtesy of The Old Print Shop
(etching and drypoint)

Lewis arrived in Japan in the autumn of 1920, tired of his life as a commercial artist and no doubt eager for a change after a nearly decade-long relationship had ended.  He just missed the English potter and etcher Bernard Leach, who had left Japan about three months earlier after a decade of producing highly idiosyncratic Japanese landscape etchings and largely failing to stimulate the interest of Japanese artists to pursue work in that medium.  Unlike Leach, however, Lewis did not go to Japan to make etchings or to teach etching to the Japanese.  He went to paint.  For those accustomed to Lewis' black and white prints, the bright colors of his paintings will come as somewhat of a shock.

Seki-Mon, Gokei (c. 1920-1921)
Courtesy of The Old Print Shop
(charcoal and colored pencil)

Gokei (c. 1920-1921)
Courtesy of The Old Print Shop
(watercolor)
 
Pilgrims, Gokei, Japan (c. 1920-1921)
Courtesy of The Old Print Shop
(watercolor)

What we see captured in Lewis' Japanese paintings is the Japanese reverence for nature.  We know he spent time in the great cities of Tokyo and Nikko.  But the majority of Lewis' surviving paintings and drawings focus on the natural scenic beauty of the Japanese countryside or coastline.  Among the places he visited were Gotemba, Ajiro, Atami, Hakone, Yoshida, Mito, Kambara, Kankakei Gorge on Shodo Island, Subashiri, Iyo, Omiya-machi, Tomo, and the Inland Sea.

 Yumoto - Hakone (c. 1920)
Courtesy of The Old Print Shop
(watercolor)
\
 Coast off Iyo, Japan (c. 1920)
Courtesy of The Old Print Shop
(watercolor)

Fuji San - Looking Across to Gotemba (c. 1920)
Courtesy of The Old Print Shop
(oil on panel)

When one looks at Lewis' entire print output, one is struck by the sheer number of prints featuring clouds, rain, or snow.  While I have no evidence to back up my hypothesis, I strongly suspect that Lewis was strongly influenced not only by classical ukiyo-e but also by the early shin hanga prints designed by Kawase Hasui and Ito Shinsui.  Lewis likely first saw their prints when he was in Tokyo and, in the case of Hasui, an acknowledged master in depicting rain or snow in his prints, Lewis likely continued to be exposed to Hasui's landscape prints upon his return to New York City.

Rain on Murray Hill (1928) (McCarron #75)
Recorded Impressions: 110 including 1 trial proof
Courtesy of The Old Print Shop
(drypoint)

Stoops in Snow (1930) (second state) (McCarron #89 - II)
Recorded Impressions: 115 including 8 trial proofs plus an unknown number of restrikes
Courtesy of The Old Print Shop
(drypoint and sand ground)

Rainy Day, Queens (1931) (McCarron #94)
Recorded Impressions: 70 including 6 trial proofs
Courtesy of The Old Print Shop
(drypoint)

While Lewis traveled to Japan intending to establish permanent residency there, in the end his stay lasted less than two years.  He was never able to master the Japanese language, and he was unable to support himself with the sale of his paintings.  It is known that he illustrated a book of Japanese scenery for the English travel firm Nelson's, but I have been unable to locate the existence of any such copies despite having contacted several libraries in England.  After an initial six months spent in Tokyo, a city which Lewis evidently detested, he made his base for the remainder of his time in Japan with a Japanese-Swedish family living in Shoji, near Fujiama.  Lewis painted a sympathetic portrait of a family member, Josephine Hoshimo, at some point during his stay.

 
Portrait of Josephine Hoshimo at Shoji-Ko, Japan (c. 1921-1922)
Reproduced in Martin Lewis Retrospective Exhibition:
April 11-28, 1973 (Kennedy Galleries, 1973)
(oil on canvas)

Lewis left Japan in 1922, resumed his career as commercial artist, and didn't return to printmaking until 1925.   When he did, approximately 70% of the prints he made in 1925 and 1926 were of Japanese subjects (with an additional three Japanese designs made in 1927).  I've reproduced below all of Lewis' Japanese prints, to the extent that images are available, along with extant related paintings or drawings.

I like to refer to these prints as "Japan Noir," harbingers of what just a couple of years later would become Lewis' mature, signature style.  Street Booth, Tokyo, New Year's Eve, for example, is quintessential Lewis, masterfully depicting the illumination and shadows given off from electric light bulbs.  One need only substitute New Yorkers standing in front of a newsstand or a storefront for the Japanese standing in front of a street booth to see where Lewis got his inspiration.   Is it surprising that Lewis could so expertly depict the rain-soaked storm clouds in Shadows on the Bay or the driving wind in Rain, Japan and then go on to detail the savage beauty of a thunderstorm in the middle of downtown Manhattan?  I think not.

Trees at Gotemba (1925) (McCarron #46)
Recorded Impressions: 38 (of an intended edition of 60)
Personal Collection
(drypoint)

Trees at Gotemba
1 of 4 restrikes printed on September 23, 1980 by Stephen L. Pugsley
Personal Collection
(drypoint restrike)

Trees at Gotemba
Personal Collection
(cancelled plate)

Fishing Boats in the Rain (1925) (McCarron #41)
Recorded Impressions: 41 (of an intended edition of 60)
Courtesy of the Detroit Institute of Arts
(drypoint)

Beaching of the Boat (1925) (McCarron #42)
Recorded Impressions: 33 (of an intended edition of 60)
Courtesy of The Old Print Shop
(drypoint and sand ground)

The Return (1925) (McCarron #45)
Recorded Impressions: 36 (of an intended edition of 60)
Courtesy of The Old Print Shop
(drypoint and sand ground)

 
Showers on the Bay (1925) (first state) (McCarron #46 - I)
Recorded Impressions: 23 (total for both states of an 
intended edition of 60), including 1 trial proof
Personal Collection
(drypoint and sand ground)

 
Showers on the Bay (1925) (second state) (McCarron #46 - II)
Recorded Impressions: 23 (total for both states of an 
intended edition of 60), including 1 trial proof
Personal Collection
(drypoint and sand ground)

The Bridge near Nikko (1926) (McCarron #47)
Recorded Impressions: 29 (of an intended edition of 60)
Personal Collection
(drypoint and sand ground)


Nakimuzki: Crybaby Mountain, Nikko, Japan (c. 1920-1922)
Reproduced in Martin Lewis Retrospective Exhibition:
April 11-28, 1973 (Kennedy Galleries, 1973)
(watercolor)

Shadows on the Road (1926) (McCarron #48)
Recorded Impressions: 54 (of an intended edition of 60)
Courtesy of the Old Print Shop
(drypoint and sand ground)

Road to Ajiro (1926) (first state) (McCarron #49 - I)
Recorded Impressions: 34 (total for both states of an intended edition of 60)
Personal Collection
(drypoint and sand ground) 

Note: McCarron's catalog inadvertently switched the image for "Road to Ajiro" for  "The Coast Road, Izu" and vice-versa.

 Road to Ajiro (1926) (second state) (McCarron #49 - II)
Recorded Impressions: 34 (total for both states of an intended edition of 60)
Personal Collection
(drypoint and sand ground) 

Coast at Atami, Izu, Japan (c. 1920)
Personal Collection
(watercolor)

Note: Although McCarron states that the watercolor for "The Bridge at Nikko" is the only instance in which Lewis is known to have used a watercolor as a direct source for a print, this watercolor is clearly the progenitor for "Road to Ajiro" (a print that happens to be inscribed "Atami" in the plate).  Although the perspective is slightly different, the same rock formation is prominently featured in both, albeit reversed in the course of printing the plate.

Rain, Japan (1926) (McCarron #50)
Recorded Impressions: 36 (of an intended edition of 60)
Personal Collection
(drypoint and sand ground)

Departure of the Boats (1926) (first state) (McCarron #51 - I)
Recorded Impressions: 17 (total for both states of an intended edition of 50)
Personal Collection
(drypoint and and ground)

Departure of the Boats (1926) (second state) (McCarron #51 - II)
Recorded Impressions: 17 (total for both states of an intended edition of 50)
Personal Collection
(drypoint and and ground)

Homeward Bound (aka Island Sea, Japan) (1926) (McCarron #52)
Recorded Impressions: 23 (of an intended edition of 60)
Personal Collection
(drypoint)
 
The Coast Road, Izu (1927) (first state) (McCarron #58 - I)
Recorded Impressions: 18 (total for both states of an intended edition of 60)
Personal Collection
(drypoint and sand ground) 

See Note above for "Road to Ajiro."   If a reader has an image of the second state to share with me, please contact me.
 
The Coast Road, Izu (1927) (second state) (McCarron #58 - II)
Recorded Impressions: 18 (total for both states of an intended edition of 60)
(drypoint and sand ground)
 
Study for figures in "The Coast Road, Izu" (c. 1920-1921)
Personal collection
(pencil drawing)

Clearing Rain, Evening, Japan (1927) (McCarron #59) 
Recorded Impressions (72 of an intended edition of 100)
Courtesy of the Detroit Institute of Arts
(drypoint and sand ground)

Street Booth, Tokyo, New Year's Eve (1927) (McCarron #60)
Recorded Impressions: 40 (of an intended edition of 100)
Personal Collection
(drypoint)

Shimenawa Seller's Booth, Hongo, Tokyo (c. 1927)
Courtesy of the Detroit Institute of Arts
(pencil drawing)

[Japan: Farm in Center, Two Figures in Center Foreground, Tree at Left] (c. 1925-1927)

Note:  McCarron lists in his appendix eight unidentified plates that are attributed to Martin Lewis.  Most are indecipherable due to a thick coating of wax or to corrosion, but one cancelled plate is said to clearly depict a Japanese farm scene.  It is conceivable that impressions taken from this plate could turn up one day.

In addition to his Japanese prints, late in his career Lewis made two figurative prints of Polynesian women.  I have not found any evidence that Lewis returned to the Pacific Rim after his twenties sojourn to Japan.  The dates of these prints suggest that he might have traveled sometime shortly after the end of WWII, although his financial situation at the time makes this rather doubtful, particularly as he never returned to visit family members in Australia.  Were these women he met in New York City?  Were these prints based on sketchbook drawings made decades earlier?   We may never know the answer with any certainty.

Negro Girl's Head and Sky with Moon (aka Polynesian Profile) (1947) (McCarron #137)
Recorded Impressions: 8 including 2 trial proofs
Courtesy of The Old Print Shop
(mezzotint)

Polynesian Girl - Head (1947) (McCarron #139)
Recorded Impressions: 4 including 2 trial proofs
Courtesy of The Old Print Shop
(mezzotint)

The good news for collectors is that Lewis' Japanese subjects remain today some of the most affordable of all of Lewis' prints.  While not quite as cheap as they were a decade ago, they remain relative bargains for the money, and of a quality that is on par with American designs that easily sell for ten or more times as much.  Whether they or Lewis' other prints will continue to increase in value is anyone's guess, but they should be welcome additions to any serious print collector's collection.

[Self-Portrait with Etching Equipment] (c. 1953) (McCarron #145)
Recorded Impressions:  Although only 1 impression was recorded, 
the Old Print Shop says that seven impressions have been located so far.
Personal Collection
(roulette and drypoint)

For more information about Martin Lewis' life and work, I recommend The Prints of Martin Lewis: A Catalogue Raisonné by Paul McCarron (M. Hausberg, Bronxville, New York 1995).  A large number of Lewis' paintings and drawings can also be found on websites of the Detroit Institutes of Arts and The Old Print Shop in New York City, which handles the Lewis estate.

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