Shikō Munakata

A Way of Seeing

Japan Society
333 East 47th Street
New York
Dec 11th 2021 — Mar 21st 2022

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Tōkaidō road, the primary avenue between Tokyo and Kyoto, has been a long-standing subject for Japanese artists, most notably the masters of Edo-period ukiyo-e woodblock printing and painting, Utagawa Hiroshige and Katsushika Hokusai. In 1964, a bullet train bridged the cities and the Tokyo Olympics catalyzed already-massive development along the artery. The innovative artist Shikō Munakata was commissioned to document the historic corridor’s expansion. At Yokkaichi, he wrote in a diary entry dated May 11, 1963, “I wanted to express the active city that is fueled by the logistic systems in modern organizations.” Seven months later in Moriguchi he observed, “They still use old style ferry boats called Heita No Watashi to cross the river. The buildings, chimneys, and iron towers on the other side of the river looked like they were floating on the river surface and covered with vapor.”

The woodblock prints that Munakata produced at Tōkaidō are exceptional in more ways than one. Traditionally depicted in 53 stations, Munakata expanded his series to 61. Known for his speed, Munakata captures scenes of flux—his rendition of Yokohama depicts the ocean as a flurry of lateral lines intersected by a tall concrete structure and a “half-broken ship,” while a print of a tea house at Mishima captures a quiet moment of respite beneath the tumultuous limbs of a maple tree. These scenes alternate between raucous black-and-white horizontal prints and lush, colorful landscapes oriented as portraits. The color images are some of his most mesmerizing works. Munakata innovated a printmaking technique called urazaishiki, wherein he applied paint to the back of the paper. The Japan Society intelligently decided to backlight the prints; they radiate a palpable sense of life.

Woodblocks were just one art form that Munakata reinvigorated. He dedicated an incredible six-panel screen depicting 20 Buddhist deities to his mentor Kanjirō Kawai, a leader of Mingei, the folk-crafts movement. Painted on silk—a medium dating to the mid-12th century—Eulogy to Shōkei (1945) incorporates intaglio and other engraving techniques. Other screens by Munakata reference the ancient Iranian prophet Zoroaster and Celtic lettering.

In the third and final gallery, Munakata’s innovations reach their apotheosis with “The Ten Great Disciples of Buddha” (1939–48), a series of woodblock carvings printed on hanging scroll paper. Munakata carved both sides of his woodblocks to keep them from warping, and each disciple is a mirror image of another. Yoriko Ishhi, a scholar and the artist’s granddaughter, writes that Munakata “thought that the existence of ‘another power’ made the creation of woodblock prints possible.” Indeed, as I viewed the series—which is encircled by self-portraits, letters, literary illustrations and photographs of the artist at work—I thought of how related the spirits of printed relief and cultural transmission are. —Will Fenstermaker

Shikō Munakata, Tokyo: The Starting Point, from the Tōkaidō Series, 1964. Photograph by Nicholas Knight. Collection of Japan Society. © Shikō Munakata