The Secret Of The Violinist

By | December 19, 2017

Onchi Kōshirō, Japanese, 1891–1955; printed by Onchi Kōshirō, Japanese, 1891–1955; Impression of a Violinist (Portrait of Suwa Nejiko), 1947; color woodblock print; sheet: 19 5/8 × 15 7/8 inches; Saint Louis Art Museum, The Margaret and Irvin Dagen Fund for Modern and Contemporary Japanese Prints in honor of Steven Owyoung 118:2016

The 2017 exhibition A Century of Japanese Prints presented a selection of the Museum’s finest examples of modern and contemporary Japanese prints from the 20th and 21st centuries, including Onchi Kōshirō’s Impression of a Violinist (Portrait of Suwa Nejiko).

In this Japanese color woodblock print, a woman plays the violin, her gaunt face harshly illuminated by bright stage lights. The lights also cast a halo-like glow behind her; the shape of a violin encloses her protectively.

Many prints from Japan in the early 20th century feature pleasing subjects, like beautiful women, landscapes, or scenes from everyday life. Others, like Impression of a Violinist, tell a darker, more complicated story.

In 1946, during the Allied occupation of Japan following World War II (1939-1945), Onchi Kōshirō attended a musical performance for Japan’s General Headquarters officials and their families. He found himself completely captivated by the star of the performance, violinist Suwa Nejiko (1920–2012).

Suwa first found fame not in Japan, but in Europe – with the support of the Nazi regime. She escaped from Germany following the end of the war and eventually returned to Japan. [1]

The Nazi propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, presenting a violin, said to be a Stradivarius, to Nejiko Suwa, February 22, 1943

Her beloved instrument was a source of controversy that followed Suwa for the rest of her life. During her career in Germany, the Nazi propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, presented her with the violin and claimed it was a rare Stradivarius. Though it has never been confirmed, it is suspected that Suwa’s beloved violin was stolen from a Jewish owner.

Onchi was struck that she would perform for the Allies, her former enemy, and, in addition to creating this print, was also inspired to write the following poem:

The bow rises strongly into the air
The artificial lights turned on this violinist’s slender body,
How yellow they seem!—
On her pale face, on the white silk.
This body passed through a Europe torn with war
And stands on the stage of an occupied country.
Ah, the sounds of rubbing strings keep gnawing at one’s heart,
How sad a thing art is!
My heart turns yellow,
My tears turn yellow too.


[1] Shapreau, Carla. “A Violin Once Owned by Goebbels Keeps Its Secrets.” The New York Times 21 Sept. 2012: Accessed 18 Dec. 2017.