"The woodcut, unconcerned with good and evil, with ideas, with differences, tells us that it consists of truth alone.”
(Shiko Munakata)

Japanese traditional art is synonymous with woodblock prints, magnified by the grand masterpieces of Ukiyo-e geniuses Hokusai, Hiroshige, Utamaro, and Kuniyoshi, who all shed light on the artistic minds of the world’s greatest pioneers of Impressionism and Modernism.

In the early 20th century Japan during the Showa period, a unique style of woodblock printing emerged that reflected the shades of the sosaku hanga (creative print) movement of the 1900s and folk art. Aomori native Shiko Munakata (1903-1975) transcended beyond conventional printmaking to the infusion of other media, such as bookbinding, illustration, paper wrapping art, film, and television. Recipient of the “Prize of Excellence” award at the Second International Print Exhibition in Lugano, Switzerland in 1952, First Prize at the São Paulo Bienal Exhibition in Brazil in 1955, Grand Prix at the Venice Biennale in 1956, and the Order of Culture by the Japanese government in 1970, Munakata gained widespread international recognition that he was called the “world-revered Munakata.”

Commemorating the 120th birth anniversary of the artist, the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo is celebrating his multifarious works of woodblock prints, hand drawings, calligraphy, oil paintings, book covers, and commercial designs in The Making of Munakata Shiko: Celebrating the 120th Anniversary of the Artist’s Birth exhibition until December 3rd this year. The magnificent collection traces the dynamic world of the artist and the diversity of Japanese printmaking.

Together with Toyama Prefectural Museum of Art and Aomori Museum of Art, the full retrospective highlights influences of three regions—Aomori, Tokyo, and Toyama—on Munakata’s art philosophy. As a young boy in his Aomori hometown, Munakata became easily fascinated by the sparkling colors of the Nebuta festival and local kite illustrations. His first glance at Van Gogh’s Sunflowers left an irresistible mark that instilled a promise to himself to become the Van Gogh of Aomori. He worked relentlessly on his oil paintings and mingled with well-known painters. Mt. Hakkoda (1924) depicts one of Munakata’s early paintings, which recounts the climb he and his friends made to Mt. Hakkoda, Aomori. The realistic rendering of the panorama from the Mt. Iwaki Observatory suggests his apparent tendency towards the naturalistic method of Van Gogh and Cézanne.

In 1924, at 21 years old, the artist moved from Aomori to Tokyo to further hone his talents and succeed as a professional painter. Despite growing up in an impoverished family, he struggled after four trials to win the Imperial Art Teiten Exhibition in 1928 with his oil painting Zatsu-en (Freestyle Garden). Surrounding himself with painters and printmakers, Munakata gradually diverted his attention to woodblock printing. His individualistic style of expressing nature in abstract and decorative forms, enforced by the thickness and strength of the lines, instantly caught public attention, making him a vital part of the Sosaku Hanga movement. He received opportunities to exhibit at the Kokugakai Exhibition in 1936, and another in 1940 when he won the Saburi Award.

Munakata’s early prints continued to resonate with his personal approach during his Aomori days. This is exemplified in Oirase River (C) (1932), illustrating bold, single lines that flow like a stream around randomly placed dots. Likewise in Kegonmatsu (Divine Pine Trees, 1944), the fierce manipulation of black brush strokes against the white background proves Munakata’s ease in the interplay of contrasts to transform, in the case of this painting, the enormous pine tree into splashes of varied movements. The reverse side of the artwork, which is normally closed to the public, is presented in the exhibition.

In Tokyo, Munakata met Japan’s renowned father of modern design and crafts Sōetsu Yanagi. This valuable encounter kept him close to the mingei (folk art) movement and a deep understanding of Buddhism and Japanese culture. Owing to his numerous visits to Buddhist temples in Kyoto, and later on to his move to the spiritual town of Fukumitsu, Toyama during the war, Buddhist religious imagery became prominent in his artworks. In The Many Aspects of Compassionate Avalokiteśvara (1938), we see various forms of deities representing the teachings of the Kannon Sutra, which highlights Buddha’s metamorphosis into thirty-three bodies. The work successfully defines Munakata’s attempt at reverse coloring —a technique that has characterized his aesthetic prowess.

Yanagi also persuaded Munakata to mount his prints on folding screens as an indoor furniture accent. Two Bodhisattva and Ten Great Disciple of Sakyamuni (1939, reprint 1948) exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1956; In Praise of Shokei, the Kiln of Kawai Kanjiro (1945), won the International Print Award also at the same Venice Biennale; The Twelve Guardian Gods of Arts (In Hommage to Hamada Shoji) (1950), shown at the Kokugakai Exhibition in 1950; and In Praise of Great Joy: On Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (1952), displayed at the Japan International Art Exhibition are some of the remarkable folding screens presented in the exhibition. The stupendous The Twelve Apostles (1953), a four-piece folding screen three meters high, with black clothing arranged alternately in a checkerboard pattern, is showcased for the first time in sixty years. Munakata began working on the motif of Christ’s apostles after the war, intending to create sequential poses and colors of the robes—black and white alternately—to integrate the panels as a unified composition.

With the declaration of war in 1941, Munakata was not enlisted due to his severe myopia, nevertheless, upon request, offered his drawn pictures, particularly of tigers, to the soldiers, and Fudo Myoo (Buddhist deity) paintings to the navy to uplift their spirits. The war’s growing intensity propelled him to evacuate to Fukumitsu, Toyama in 1945. The artist developed a fondness for Fukumitsu’s natural scenery, adopting these landscapes to his art. He became known for the practice of yamatoga, hand-drawn paintings in India ink and watercolors. He opened his studio in 1946, painting fusuma doors and hand-drawn paintings as commissioned by temples.

Munakata moved back to Tokyo in 1951, gaining several award recognitions. Later, he traveled to the U.S. upon the invitation of the Rockefeller Foundation and the Japan Society, as well as to Europe. His woodblock prints traversed international boundaries, earning him the name of “Munakata of the world.”

Munakata concentrated heavily on board paintings, which he translated as “listening to the sound of the board and carving out the life of the board.” Many of the boards were made from scraps of wood and were also produced into hand-railed, hand-colored, and hand-bound art books. His book illustrations and cover designs were much praised as nostalgic mementos for Japanese. Hanga no Michi (1956) was one such book cover art that pronounced the artist’s passion for colors and motifs of nature. His expressions of beautiful women in striking colors also became widely known, many made into wrapping papers and stamps. His art filtered through calendars, magazines, advertisements, and even on the yukata.

Among the artist’s many self-portraits, both in oil and woodblock prints, an amusing piece on view, Flowers of Great India (1972), features sunflowers inspired by his trip to India. On the side of the vase is Munakata’s self-portrait that appears to declare himself as an alter ego of Van Gogh.

The colossal exhibition strongly reminds us of the roots of Japanese folk culture, religion, and the simple livelihood in local communities that are profoundly embedded in Munakata’s universe of art.