Art Moment: Fritz Capelari (1884 – 1950)

The name hardly rings a bell, even among art lovers. But Friedrich (Fritz) Capelari has a distinguished, if modest output of woodblock prints and paintings that can that justifiably be called sublime in the way it fuses Japanese and Western aesthetic.

Fritz grew up in Bleiburg, a small town in southern Austria, notable for fine wood carving. His father worked as a decorative wood carver and an interior house painter. So, in a sense, woodblock printing was “in his blood”. He was the first Western artist to work with the Japanese woodblock print publisher Watanabe Shôzaburô. In 1915, Watanabe was looking for new artists to revitalize the art of woodblock prints. He wanted to work with an artist who could paint Japanese scenes in a realistic Western style. By chance, he came across Capelari’s watercolor paintings in a Japanese department store exhibition, and was impressed. Watanable managed to contact Capelari and proposed that they collaborate to realize his vision. Capelari agreed, which soon led to a print called “Returning Home in the Rain” (pictured). Though Capelari based this print on ukiyo-e (paintings and prints that depict everyday life and interests of common people), the details in his print are minimized, allowing the shapes and colors take on an abstract modern quality.

“Returning Home in the Rain” by Fritz Capelari (1884 –1915), woodblock print published by Watanabe Shozaburo.

Between 1915 and 1920, Watanabe went on to publish 15 more designs by Capelari including landscapes and bijin-ga, or “beautiful women” prints. Capelari left Japan in 1920, and spent twelve years travelling in Java and Bali before before returning to Europe in 1932. While in the Dutch east Indies, Capelari returned to drawing and painting, producing a number of compelling works such as this wistful portrait of a Javanese girl.

Fritz Capelari, Ramiza of Djokja, Java, (1921), colored drawing.

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