PRINT March 1964

The Art of Shiko Munakata

THE SABERSKY GALLERY’S retrospective exhibition of woodblock prints by the contemporary Japanese artist Shiko Munakata displays a wealth of black and white and hand-colored woodcuts that are at once decorative and exciting. Rhythmical curves and counter-curves of black and white shapes heightened with jewel-like colors provide an inexhaustible feast for the eye. But the sheer delight of visual excitement is gradually, superseded by the awareness that within Munakata’s power-packed figures of Buddhist deities lies something indeed profound and far-reaching.

“The monster” is Munakata’s own phrase describing his inner creative surge, an enormous talent that has produced some of the most remarkable and sought-after of contemporary prints. After sweeping the grand prizes for prints at the Sao Paulo Biennale in 1955, and the Venice Biennale in 1956, Munakata’s prints were introduced to the Western world, with tremendous response. As a result of exposure through these and subsequent exhibitions, he is probably the best known of the contemporary Japanese masters of “hanga,” or printmaking. But despite this success, Munakata’s work remains pure and fundamental, untouched by the slick gloss of commercialism and Western embellishments to which many of his compatriots have succumbed.

Such adjectives as bold, primitive, powerful, even crude are conjured up to describe Munakata’s black and white woodblock prints. As the spontaneity of the finished product would indicate, he works rapidly, using as a guideline for his carving only the briefest of sketches made directly on the block. Photographs of the artist at work show Munakata peering nearsightedly at the board, chips of wood flying in all directions from the vigorous onslaught of his chisel. Once the cutting is finished—often a matter of minutes—the entire surface is covered with powerfully hacked out figures. Large figures frequently touch all sides of the board, as if contained within the wood itself, confined by its dimensions. Munakata speaks lovingly of making the board live. When making a print, he constantly compares the board being carved with a solidly inked, uncarved plank. “If there is anything here that is inferior to an uncarved block, then I have not created my print. I have lost to the board,” is the way he has eloquently expressed his deep respect for the materials of his medium. Once the cutting is finished, he inks the block with ordinary sumi and prints on thin Japanese paper to get his black and white impression. In printing, he aims not for solid, dense black, but for gradation of tone from middle-gray to black. When color is used to enhance the print, it is brushed on the back of the paper and allowed to seep through to the surface. Tints achieved in this way are subtle and blurred, never detracting from the power of the black and white image. One feels that these prints are stripped bare of all but the essentials, that through the methods of artistic selectivity he has removed every extraneous element and arrived at the most economical statement possible.

Paradoxically, Munakata began his artistic career in oil painting. After working in the medium for some years, he began to feel it inadequate, despite a measure of success and recognition. Oil painting was, for him, a borrowed medium, not a part of his heritage; and he sought a more natural vehicle, one typically Japanese. Two friends—Manshi Matsuki and Kihachiro Shimozawa—had already begun to work in hanga, so Munakata decided to try this most Japanese of art forms.

His first explorations in woodcuts were in color, which afforded him little satisfaction. Then one day he saw a black and white woodblock print by Sumio Kawakami and knew he had found his direction. So direct and so strong was his response to the stark black and white image, that it has sustained him for a period of nearly thirty years. That it continues to excite him is apparent, because he is able to infect the viewer with the same excitement. Oliver Statler has quoted Munakata as saying: “I make black and white prints because I want to go back to the beginning, and because prints in black and white are absolute. . . . Others treat black as black ink. To me it is life itself.”

Besides the Japanese woodblock tradition of which Munakata has found himself inexorably a part, another major area of influence has gone into shaping Munakata the man, and, consequently, Munakata the artist. A deeply religious man, he admits a major debt to Zen Buddhism, already seen, in part, in his choice of subjects for his woodblock prints. But the influence extends far beyond the surface decorative values of Buddhist deities. It pervades his attitude toward the creative process itself. Munakata’s own comments reflect the fundamental Zen philosophy that the materials and tools possess a life and power of their own. He speaks of the “power within the board” and the tool that must “walk alone.” The artist acts as liberator of these forces, effecting their release without intervention in the channels of truth.

Oliver Statler suggests a more direct and personal source for this belief. Munakata’s blacksmith father approached his trade with ritual-like homage to the gods of nature in whose hands, according to Shinto religious beliefs, rest the methods of the craft. The person who is skilled as an artist or a blacksmith, or in any craft is one who possesses a power over whatever gods are involved. The lines of inheritance may not be so clearly drawn, but it is probable that Munakata developed his sense of craft and respect for natural materials from a father who was so caught up in the Japanese folk tradition. Even today, Munakata is not a member of the Hanga Association of Japan, preferring instead to join the “mingei” or folkcraft group, where others share his religious concerns and concentration on things peculiarly Japanese.

Virginia Allen