A self-taught artist, Watanabe’s career began in textile dyeing workshops in the 1930s. When he began making prints after the war, he borrowed elements—particularly the simplified treatment of eyes that connect across the nose—from a Buddhist folk art tradition popularized by the printmaker Shikō Munakata (whose work is also displayed in this exhibition). Watanabe’s prints were shown in 1947 at the Folk Art (Mingei) Museum in Tokyo, in New York City in 1958, and at the White House during President Lyndon B. Johnson’s tenure. When James Michener included one of Watanabe’s hand-colored stencil prints in his 1962 portfolio of ten modern Japanese prints (a copy of this book is displayed in the exhibition), he praised the artist’s use of traditional Japanese techniques in ways that showed his “complete freedom from Oriental preceptors,” calling him, “a full-fledged proponent of the international style.”
In Christ on the Way to Golgotha, Watanabe draws on a long tradition of western artistic representations of Jesus carrying the cross to his crucifixion, known as the Stations of the Cross. He is on his knees, having fallen under the burden of the cross. Large, black semi-circles on his face convey emaciation, and his body is bent at a right angle, contorting into a cross-like figure.