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Shikō Munakata

Japanese, 1903 - 1975

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Munakata Shikö is celebrated as one of the great print artists of the twentieth century. Born the son of a blacksmith in Aomori prefecture in northern Japan, he began to make his own kite paintings--which were very popular with his classmates--while he was still in school. He left his native town in 1924 to pursue a career as a painter in Tokyo, with the conviction that he was going to "become Van Gogh." The young artist's goal was hindered by his extreme nearsightedness, which made it difficult to paint landscapes or realistic portraits that required the use of perspective, so he began experimenting with printmaking. His early prints were simple black-and-white compositions made using concise, straightforward techniques.

Munakata used nature, Buddhism, folk tales, contemporary poetry, and even Western literature for his subjects, also transforming them into dynamic paintings (both in oils and sumi ink), calligraphy, ceramics, and woodcuts.

Munakata revolutionized the concept of the woodcut, liberating it from the traditional small-scale ukiyo-e format to create his own unique style of hanga. Beginning with the Two Bodhisattvas and Ten Great Disciples of Sakyamuni series of 1939 and culminating in a late monumental screen, Abundance and Richness (1972), he created large-scale works that far transcend the norm for woodblock prints. His love for technical experimentation led to an innovative use of the chisel (integrating intaglio and relief methods of printmaking) and an inventive approach to coloring his prints (applying color from the back). Indeed, it was through his distinctive woodcuts that Munakata first gained international acclaim, winning top prizes at the São Paulo Biennale in 1955 and the Venice Biennale of 1956. Even in works without images, such as Poems from Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" (1959), Munakata's powerful style of expression makes his work instantly recognizable.

Munakata and Literature

While Munakata liked to be seen as a "country boy" with little formal education, he was in fact a very knowledgeable and avid reader of contemporary literature, especially poetry. Prior to moving to Tokyo in 1924, the young artist was a member of a club devoted to literature, poetry, and theater in Aomori. He counted among his friends notable Japanese writers and poets such as Tanizaki Jun'ichirö, Kusano Shinpei, Yoshii Isamu, and Yasuda Yojirö. Munakata himself wrote essays and stories, as well as haiku and other forms of verse, and produced a staggering total of 726 prints related to books and poems during his lifetime.

For his first literary illustrations--a group of woodcuts for a 1930 publication of the play Cyrano de Bergerac--he drew inspiration from Japanese writings, including the ancient historical text Kojiki, the Nö play Utou, and the contemporary novel Kagi. His 1936 group of woodcuts to illustrate Satö Ichiei's modern epic poem Yamato uruwashi was so admired by folk craft leader Yanagi Söetsu that he purchased it for the Tokyo Museum of Folk Art (Mingeikan). In 1937, Munakata created a series of fifty-four woodcuts based on another of Satö's books of verse, In Praise of Nature.

In 1956, Tanizaki Jun'ichirö asked Munakata to create the illustrations for his novel The Key, which was to be serialized in the prominent literary magazine Chüö köron. The project entailed the production of fifty-nine prints that were published over time, as the publication of the novel progressed.

Munakata's engagement with poetry continued throughout his life, exemplified by the 1965-66 woodcuts In Praise of Mt. Fuji (which were based on poems by Kusano Shinpei), and the series of prints he created in 1959 based on Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass.

Experiments in Technique and Theme

In the late 1930s, Munakata produced a series of woodcuts describing the exploits of Prince Yamatotakeru (a hero of Japanese lore), to illustrate the epic poem Yamato uruwashi by Satö Ichiei (1899 - 1979). One woodcut shows the prince with sword in hand, "a youth standing on a rock on the mountainside, proudly," according to Satö's text. In another, an arrow deflected off the hero's armor turns into a swallow as it flies off. These are milestone works for Munakata in several respects: they mark the first time he integrated image and text together in a single woodcut and the first time he experimented with hand coloring, by brushing a pale orange wash over part of the printed image.

The first woodcut series in which Munakata uses a religious theme was created in 1936. The twenty-four prints in the series represent various deities who appear in the Buddhist sacred text known as The Flower Garland Sutra (Gandavyuha-sutra, or Kegon-kyö in Japanese). The text focuses on the Buddha Vairocana, who is the source of all matter, energy, wisdom, and truth.

Munakata was also a great fan of Beethoven's compositions, particularly the Ninth Symphony. To express his own "great joy" in Beethoven's work, Munakata carved a series of twenty-seven naked women dancing for joy across the surface of thirty-six blocks of wood in 1952. The graphic style of this work also shows the influence of Celtic lettering. According to the master potter Hamada Shöji (1894 - 1978), when he showed the artist a book on early Celtic script, Munakata was immediately attracted to the extravagantly ornamented letters and was inspired to decorate the body of each woman with a different pattern.

When making woodcuts Munakata was partial to magnolia wood, which was difficult to obtain but held black ink more easily than other types of wood.

Damashigawa (Deception River)

Munakata and his family moved to Fukumitsu in Toyama prefecture in 1945 after his Tokyo residence was destroyed. The river flowing through the town is called Damashigawa, which literally means "Deception River." Munakata loved puns and word play and greatly enjoyed writing two prose poems about Deception River and the kappa that dwell there. Kappa are mythical water sprites, known for their ability to fool or deceive humans.

Munakata begins his two-part tale by stating that he himself has drawn pictures of kappa and that they really do exist around Damashigawa, as the young wife of Kichiyouemon witnessed one day while lulling her baby to sleep on the bridge over the river. The narrator confesses that he finds the area near the river to be very alluring, especially around noon in catfish season, when the air is thick and everything is quiet. This is when the kappa come out too.

The scene then shifts to the artist's studio. A nobleman, Marquis Shinmon, comes to visit him and expresses admiration for his ability to depict koi (carp). When the marquis asks whether this is difficult to do, Munakata plays on the word koi in his answer, using its homonym, meaning "love." The two then recall an old poem about koi. During the remainder of the tale, stories within a story are told by the kappa. In the end, Munakata is unsure just how far the deceptions went at Deception River.

The Philadelphia Story: Munakata and the Art of Lithography

During his first visit to the United States in 1959, Munakata learned to make lithographs with Arthur Flory, a noted teacher of printmaking at Temple University's Tyler School of Fine Art in Philadelphia. Flory had been asked by the Japan Society (New York) to host Munakata during his visit to Philadelphia, and instructed a student to prepare seven lithograph stones for the artist's week-long stay. Enthralled by the possibilities of a new medium, Munakata used all seven stones the first night, much to the astonishment of his hosts. His subjects ranged from Buddhist figures and calligraphy to the apple tree outside Flory's studio. Flory printed the seven lithographs himself and Munakata gave a complete set to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The following year, Flory was asked to set up a lithography studio in Tokyo, where he worked with many Japanese artists, including Munakata. An exhibition of these lithographs was held first in Tokyo, and then at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1961.

Travels Abroad

While in the United States in 1959, Munakata made a visit to New York. He toured the home of poet Walt Whitman and bought a copy of Leaves of Grass to place alongside his well-loved Japanese translation of the book. He made a set of prints based on Whitman's poems during that trip. When Munakata's American host pointed out to him that he had reversed the "s" in some words and left it out altogether in others, the artist made some corrections, but also added a caveat on the outer cover of the set of prints--"All errors and reversed letters are the responsibility of Munakata Shikö."

Munakata also traveled to several European countries in 1959, including France. While there, he visited the grave of his favorite artist--Vincent Van Gogh--and toured Paris, the city for whom he named his first son, Pariji. ("Pari" is the Japanese transliteration of the city's name.) He created many yamato-e (Japanese-style paintings) of the City of Lights.

Munakata was convinced that Van Gogh was the only non-Japanese painter in the world who understood Japanese painting well enough to be able to fully absorb the principles of its various techniques and styles. He also noted that, like himself, the renowned Dutch artist had received no formal training, nor did he have a teacher. Munakata declared, "I will become Van Gogh."

Munakata and Mount Fuji

Mount Fuji, the celebrated volcanic mountain in central Japan, has been held sacred by the Japanese for many centuries. Soaring to over twelve thousand feet, it has inspired countless works of art. Munakata was undoubtedly familiar with the most famous series of early woodblock prints on the subject, Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji, created by Katsushika Hokusai (1760 - 1849).

Munakata's own series of twenty-six woodcuts, In Praise of Mt. Fuji, is directly inspired by a volume of poems on the legendary mountain by the symbolist poet Kusano Shinpei (1903 - 1988). Kusano wrote the verses in 1943 while he was an army doctor stationed in China, basing them on his own recollections of the mountain and on legends about dragons residing there. Munakata used a variety of sizes, formats, and designs in interpreting Kusano's images of the sacred peak, sometimes combining an image and text, as in the dramatic Red Fuji, and at other times letting the image speak for itself, as in the starkly expressionistic With a Royal Air.

Munakata's images of Mount Fuji underwent a dynamic transformation after he turned sixty. Unlike his earlier, high-spirited Fuji prints, his later paintings exude a peaceful air of dignity and composure. When making yamato-e, Munakata did not begin in the traditional way by first painting delicate, thin outlines for his forms. Instead he started out with a brush dripping with pigment, creating thick, blurred outlines.

Final Years

In a 1963 self-portrait, Munakata is surrounded by symbols of people he admired. Japanese characters at top right read "Ode to Joy, in praise of Beethoven." At top left "Van Gogh going out to paint" appears next to an image of the Dutch painter. At the center, the base of a stupa (a Buddhist monument) is inscribed with the name "Yanagi" for Munakata's artist friend Yanagi Söetsu. Above the stupa is "Taiga," for the eighteenth-century painter Ike no Taiga. Munakata rests his head on a pillow shaped like a baku, a mythical creature that devours bad dreams. Beside him are ceramics by potter friends Kawai Kanjirö, Hamada Shöji, and Tomimoto Kenkichi. The white hand of his wife, Chiya, reaches into the composition at lower left. Munakata's chisel, considered his alter ego, rests on the floor below.

In February 1972, Munakata traveled to India, fulfilling a long-held desire to visit Khajuraho, an area famous for the hundreds of exuberant stone figures carved on its many temples. His last major work, executed in the fall of 1974, illustrates an episode from the jatakas (stories of the Buddha's previous incarnations). The following year, Munakata died of liver cancer at his home in Tokyo.

Munakata Shiko: Japanese Master of the Modern Print, 2002

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