the greatest origami artist akira yoshizawa
The Greatest Origami Artist Akira Yoshizawa
In the course of his studies into paperfolding and paperfolding books in the early 1950s, Gershon Legman came across information about books which had been published in Japan. He wrote to a Japanese publisher to ask for information about a very modest paperfolding book and was surprised to receive a reply which told him about the folding Akira Yoshizawa and urged him to get in touch with him. Following this, Legman wrote many letters to Yoshizawa without receiving a reply. Some reports say that Legman wrote as many as two hundred or more letters. The only reason for this was that at the time Yoshizawa was just too poor to pay even the postage on a letter.
Then at last, at the beginning of August, 1953, Legman, then living in New York, received a letter from Yoshizawa. Moreover, in a separate packet, Yoshizawa sent Legman models of a peacock, a "camel on four legs" and a chicken. Soon after, he sent a goose.
Almost at the same time as Gershon Legman first heard from Yoshizawa he obtained a cheap passage to France as a promotional offer from a shipping company. The cheap ticket to Europe gave him the opportunity to escape from New York where he found that there was interference with his mail and he decided to move to live in France at least temporarily. Ostensibly it was to enable his to attend a course in psychology in Paris.
Meanwhile, following the publication of his models in Asahi Graf, the first public exhibition of Yoshizawa's folding was held in the Gallery of the Toden Service Center in the Ginza, which is the main shopping district of Tokyo. It was sponsored by Tokyo Electric Power. Yoshizawa folded many new models to be displayed in the exhibition and at last the Japanese public had the opportunity of seeing Yoshizawa's magical and revolutionary paperfolding for themselves.
When Gershon Legman heard from Yohizawa about the exhibition in the Ginza, Legman immediately thought how wonderful it would be if an exhibition of Yoshizawa's could be held in France. The inside back-flap of the dust cover of the first, 1956 printing of Robert Harbin's "Paper Magic", says: "During 1955 an amazing exhibition of Japanese paper models was exhibited in Paris (and there is some likelihood that this exhibition may eventually visit London!)". Unfortunately this statement was already out-of-date. While there are indications that Legman did plan to hold an exhibition in Paris the arrangements fell through. Legman mentioned that he gave a few demonstrations in Paris, but that was all. Yoshizawa himself said that he sent his models but that they arrived too late for the exhibition in Paris, but it seems unlikely that plans for such an exhibition in ever made much progress. Nor did anything come of any hope that the exhibition would visit London. It seems that Legman was confronted by the difficulties met by all private individuals have when they try to organise an exhibition in a large city.
Eventually, it became possible to arrange for an exhibition of the work of Yoshizawa to be shown at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Amsterdam was an unlikely venue, for Legman had no apparent connections with Holland. While Yoshizawa may have been under the impression that Legman was planning an exhibition to be held in Paris, he agreed to send the models he had shown in Tokyo to Legman. Following the exhibition in the Ginza, two or three Japanese women's magazines had published series of instructions for models created by him and he used all of the money he had received for this in payment of postage and carefully packed the models, each in a separate cardboard protector and sent the parcel by the Hankyu air carrier. Fortunately an exhibition in Amsterdam did take place with the help of a Mr. Felix Tikotin and the models sent by Yoshizawa were exhibited instead in Amsterdam instead of in Paris.
Yoshizawa's first book, Atarashii Origami Geijutsu ("New Origami Art") was printed in 1953, but issued in 1954, before the exhibition took place in Amsterdam. One of the introductions was written by Tadasu Iizawa, the Chief Editor of Asahi Graf. The publishers later prepared some copies for Westerners and an additional introduction in English was stapled into the book. In it Yoshizawa wrote that he had avoided the use of scissors because he did not want his origami works to transgress beyond the field of "paper folding". He wrote: "The art of Origami should be differentiated from pure paper cutting. I did not color the patterns nor draw lines on them. That is, I did not add eyes and noses on the face part of my patterns. All of such additional touches deprive the Origami art of its symbolic beauty." The book was one of quite simple folding, but all the models were of Yoshizawa's creation. The book also used Yoshizawa's system of diagrams, using dotted lines and arrows. Legman brought his copy of this book to Amsterdam and he hoped to find a publisher for it there or in Paris, London or Helsinki. Nothing ever came of these hopes. Soon afterwards Yoshizawa published other small booklets of simple folding. However the most advanced and most influential of his books published in the 1950s was Origami Dokuhon I in its first paper-backed edition. This was published in 1957 in a smaller format than the later reprint of 1967.
Legman received Yoshizawa's models at his home in the south of France. He was able to hold a brief preliminary exhibition of Yoshizawa's work in the garden of a studio at Cagnes-sur-Mer on the Riviera. Yoshizawa's models were displayed for the first time in the West in the open air on tables and in trees. I have often wondered just how advisable it was to exhibit precious Yoshizawa's models unprotected in the open air. It does rain sometimes even in the south of France and winds are liable to spring up. The thought of what might have happened becomes very poignant in the knowledge of the ultimate fate of the models following a later exhibition in New York.
The Stedelijk Museum is the "City" museum of Amsterdam. It now houses a collection of modern art and is also used for temporary exhibitions. The exhibition of Yoshizawa's paperfolding was apparently opened at the Stedelijk Museum at the beginning of October, 1955. Gershon Legman presumably attended the opening of the exhibition (although this is not stated) and over its whole period the exhibition was a great success. It seems it may have been slow to start, but when reports about it began to reach the people of Amsterdam, crowds of visitors flocked in, both adults and children. Legman gave demonstrations of paper folding which were very popular and they attracted more visitors. The press attended and several Dutch newspapers and magazines printed reports.
The exhibition was honoured with a visit by Japanese Ambassador to the Netherlands, Suemasa Okamoto. He was very impressed and afterwards sent a report to the Japanese government. He also wrote to Yoshizawa an enthusiastic handwritten letter praising the exhibition of his work. The ambassador sent Yoshizawa copies of articles that were printed in the newspapers and magazines. Yoshizawa was deeply moved when Suemasa Okamoto told him that after the ill-feelings brought about by the War, the exhibition had helped to foster a better relationship between the Netherlands and Japan. It was probably this report that led to Yoshizawa being sent on later missions to many countries of the world as an ambassador for Origami and Japanese culture.
The newspaper and magazine reports did not begin to appear until November, so the press may not have been at the opening of the exhibition at the beginning of October. The earliest recorded was a long report in the newspaper Utrechts Nieuwsblad dated 12th November, 1955. But when they eventually appeared the reports were all enthusiastic.
Not only was Yoshizawa mentioned by the papers, but they were also interested in Legman himself. They printed accounts of how, towards the end of the War, Legman had tried to rescue a cat from a tree, but had fallen and injured his ankle. During the enforced period of rest that had followed he had passed the time folding and refolding paper models that he knew from his youth. (Legman was especially fascinated by the "Lover's Knot" or "Lotus", which his school friend Cy Enfield had found in a book. Legman always rued the fact that he was never able to trace this book, but it was the search for it that sent him off on his intensive quest for books about paperfolding.) Curiously, some of the reports inaccurately described Legman as a professor at Harvard.
The newspaper reports also included a short mention of paperfolding in Japan and how it may, in the past, have been brought to the West by sailors. There were accounts of the life and folding of Akira Yoshizawa, himself, how he had taught himself to fold; and how he had lived in poverty, but had persisted until at last he had been discovered at last and had become famous in Japan.
Most of the reports were illustrated with pictures of the exhibition and several of them showed Gershon Leman teaching paperfolding to groups of eager children.
The article in "Goed Nieuws" dated 17th December, 1955 paints a picture of one of Legman's folding sessions:
"Everywhere he goes [Legman] teaches children the basic steps of paperfolding. And adults, too: parents who bring their children stand watching but then begin themselves.
"We did it too, in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam: in about twenty minutes we patiently and carefully made a bird from thin red paper ten centimetres square - and when the bird was finished we could pull its tail and it started to flap its wings. Never yet has a child or an adult who has been taught by Mr. Legman been unable to make the flapping bird. More difficult to make is a horse from one sheet of paper, because the horse has four legs. And even more difficult is a newt or a lizard because of the crest on its back; or two fighting cocks
"An eleven-year-old boy, Appie Stokvis from Amsterdam discovered that every day brought something new. Like the sailors and Unamuno and Froebel before him, he became fascinated by the centuries-old art of paperfolding. He managed to make the difficult frog and he keeps on every day making something out of a piece of paper."
There is little in the reports describing or commenting on the actual models on display, but some information can be obtained from the illustrations. The models are, in general, much more advanced than in Yoshizawa's first book "Atarashii Origami Geijutsu", published in the previous year, 1954. This book had been intended for beginners. One model that is illustrated in more than one newspaper report is a model of a bird feeding her chicks at the nest. It is a model that Yoshizawa called "Willow Tits" and was one that he folded again, perhaps several times. Another famous model is the mask of his own face. He said that he folded this because he was invited to come to the exhibition, but had been unable to do so, so he sent his portrait instead. The mask does look remarkably like its folder! Yoshizawa folded this model on later occasions and it has become a familiar icon of his art. This was not the only mask by Yoshizawa that was shown. He also sent several Noh masks. The report in Utrechts Niwewsblad for 12th November, 1953 comments: "This is the first exhibition of the Master in Western Europe. The number of exhibits has had to be restricted. For instance, there are only a few of the masks for the classic Noh drama. But please notice that these are not self-portraits, for in Japan an artist is identified by his type or mask". It may be, however that Yoshizawa became so proficient at folding his own portrait because of his experience in folding Noh masks.
Another model illustrated in the papers is a horse. This horse was apparently folded from a single square of paper without any cuts. If this is so, it must have been folded either from a blintzed square or some other method of folding that would provide sufficient "points" for a head, a tail and four legs. That would make it one of the earliest models which used either the technique of blintzing or some other advanced technique to fold a true quadruped. (Yoshizawa said that he had folded thousands of three-legged animals, but destroyed them all!)
Other models illustrated in the journals were two fighting cocks and two scorpions confronting one another. Models which were mentioned, but not illustrated were a large inflated frog, grasshoppers, salamanders, boats and elephants, including an elephant only two centimetres high.
Some of the models from the same collection were also shown in New York in 1959, but they did not include all of the models on display at Amsterdam. Yoshizawa also sent further pieces to New York which he had folded specially for that exhibition. Accordingly what was shown in New York is little indication of what was shown in Amsterdam. However, we now have a much better idea of Yoshizawa's collection of exhibits and the kinds of things he was folding at that time since a box of models were found among Gershon Legman's effects following his death and which were returned to Yoshizawa before his death.
It is uncertain how long the exhibition lasted. The Japanese Ambassador indicated that it was intended to last for only one month from the beginning of October. But the newspaper reports about the exhibition did not begin to be published until the November. Other indications suggest that the exhibition lasted for two months and Legman himself said "several months". Nor do we know how long Gershon Legman remained in Amsterdam, but he said that he taught thousands of schoolchildren and adults, so he must have attended the exhibition for more than a brief period. He also wrote that foreign visitors had attended and had aroused interest in other counties.
Following the exhibition, all of Yoshizawa's models were boxed up and taken back to Legman's home in the south of France. He had hoped to take the models to England, but this proposal from an exhibition in England came to nothing. Possibly in the hope that something would materialise, for the time-being Legman retained all of Yoshizawa's models at his home in the south of France.
In addition to the reports in the Dutch papers, there was another report of the exhibition in the Italian newspaper, "La Patria Unita" but not until 15th January, 1956. A copy was sent to me by Roberto Morassi of Florence. It is not clear how it came to be published so far away from Holland and it is an article mainly about Gershon Legman but it gives further light on the exhibition and illustrates one or two of the models displayed there.
Akira Yoshizawa has sent me copies of some of the newspaper and magazine articles that appeared in Holland at the time of the exhibition in Amsterdam and a Dutch friend has made translations of some of them. Paperfolding was certainly known in Holland, for many years before the exhibition. It is possible that Dutch sailors trading with the East brought back paperfolding with them and, indeed, there is a Dutch drawing of a small boy riding in a tiny Chinese Junk sailing in a teacup which dates from 1806. The Junk has one pointed end in the manner that is common in Japan. The Froebel movement also had an impact in Holland just as in other European countries and a Dutch lady, Elise van Calcar wrote a book called "De kline papierwerkers" in 1863. The first of its four sections was devoted to folding.
However, in 1955 there was nothing that could be described as an active paperfolding movement in Holland. The only participation of Dutch people in folding at the exhibition was in demonstrations and lessons given by Legman himself. While some of those who attended the exhibition may have cherished memories of it and may eventually have become members of future origami societies I have not found any accounts written by such people. So the exhibition did not directly lead to any movement or paperfolding in Holland. The Dutch paperfolding movement started some years later.
The first Dutch paperfolder who came to the notice of folders in other countries was Amarins Hopman de Jong, a journalist who lived in the province of Friesland in the north of Holland. However, she did not discover origami until about 1966, when her husband bought her a book of paperfolding in Dutch. This may have been "Het Grote Vouwboek" by Aart van Breda which was published in 1963. (An English translation with the title, "Paper Folding and Modelling" was published in 1965.) Amerins quickly got in touch with Lillian Oppenheimer and with the British Origami Society and later was one of those folders who helped to found the Belgian-Netherlands Origami Society in 1979. These events took place long after the Exhibition of 1955. Amerins was privileged to meet Yoshizawa when he visited Holland towards the end of 1972, following his visit to England the previous October. But Amerins never mentioned the 1955 exhibition. Every paper folder was saddened when Amerins died from a brain tumour on 17th December, 1981 at the age of 44.
However, the influence of the Yoshizawa Exhibition did not end in 1955 or in Holland. Gershon' Legman passed on information about the exhibition and about Akira Yoshizawa's amazing paper folding to Robert Harbin, the great South African stagemagician who lived in England. In 1955, Robert Harbin was the first person to present paperfolding on television. His book, "Paper Magic" then carried information about Akira Yoshizawa and about the Amsterdam Exhibition to Mrs. Lillian Oppenheimer of New York, who had been teaching paperfolding for several years. Mrs. Oppenheimer formed the Origami Center in October 1958, and made Akira Yoshizawa the Vice-President of the Center. His style of creative folding formed the basis of paperfolding as taught by the Origami Center and from the start the Center used Yoshizawa's system for drawing origami diagrams. The next year, Mrs. Oppenheimer visited Mr. Yoshizawa in Tokyo and helped to organise the origami section of the highly-successful paperfolding exhibition, "Plane Geometry and Fancy Figures" at the Cooper Union Museum in New York. It opened at the end of May, 1959 and for the exhibition, Gershon Legman sent to New York the paperfolds by Akira Yoshizawa which had been displayed in Amsterdam. Mr. Yoshizawa, himself, sent a further collection of his models direct to Mrs. Oppenheimer. After the exhibition, Mrs. Oppenheimer organised smaller exhibitions of origami at the university city of Princeton and at the Japan Center in New York. Because of an unfortunate misunderstanding, at the close of this exhibition, some of the visitors took away the exhibits as souvenirs, much to Mrs. Oppenheimer's distress. Despite this, only eight years had elapsed since the publication of the article with Y oshizawa's models in Asahi Graf. But by now the modern origami movement was already firmly established in Japan, Europe and the United States and at its spiritual heart was its inspirer and acknowledged originator, Akira Yoshizawa.
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