Abstract art can be particularly challenging to discuss. The Abstract Expressionist painters active in New York during the 1950s were resistant to the idea that their images could be somehow expressed through text. Others, such as the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944), have striven to create a visual language that transcends verbal communication. Ironically, Kandinsky published two books on the subject of abstract art. Both the painters Robert Motherwell (1915–1991) and Barnett Newman (1905–1970) as well as the art critic Clement Greenberg (1909–1994) wrote profusely about Abstract Expressionism. Even if we find it difficult to talk about non-objective works of art, we often find a way to do it anyway.

Born in Tokyo and raised in an aristocratic family, Onchi Kōshirō (1891–1955) is credited with introducing the concept of abstraction to Japanese printmaking. After studying painting and sculpture at the Tokyo School of Fine Arts during the 1910s, he joined an art association called the First Thursday Society. There, he met the American novelist Oliver Statler (1915–2002), who, alongside James Michener (1907–1997), purchased several of Onchi’s works and donated them to the Honolulu Museum of Art.

In The Modern Japanese Print, Michener states that Onchi was inspired by European artists such as Kandinsky and the Expressionist painter Edvard Munch (1863–1944), famous for his iconic work The Scream (1893). However, the strongest influence upon his prints, Michener claims, was the music of German composer Johannes Brahms (1833–1897).

This discussion about abstract art and Onchi’s background leads me to Compulsion of Despair (1952), which he produced towards the end of his life. Knowing the artist’s admiration of both Kandinsky and Brahms, the most accurate way to appreciate this print, I believe, is by “listening to it with our eyes.” Kandinsky was an ardent proponent of synesthesia, the idea that our senses can intermingle, allowing us to visualize sounds as an arrangement of colors and shapes. In his book Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1947), he writes, “The sound of colors is so definite that it would be hard to find anyone who would express bright yellow with bass notes or dark lake with treble.”

I prefer to think of Compulsion of Despair not as an image of objects arranged within a two-dimensional or three-dimensional space, but rather as sounds emerging from and retreating into a field of silence. The size, shape and color of elements within this composition reflect the pitch, timbre and intensity of those sounds, sometimes distinct as notes and at other moments merging together into chords. My concluding thought about Onchi’s abstract work is merely that this silent symphony speaks for itself.

– Stephen Salel, Robert F. Lange Foundation Curator of Japanese Art

Onchi Kōshirō (1891–1955)
Compulsion of Despair
Japan, 1952
Woodblock print; ink and color on paper
Gift of James A. Michener, 1991 (21627)