Shikō Munakata’s footprints on display for the first time since 1965
New York, NY — Japan Society is pleased to present Shikō Munakata: a way of seeing, a new presentation of nearly 100 innovative works by the famous artist Shikō Munakata (1903-1975). Best known for his powerfully expressive woodcuts in black on white paper, this exhibition reveals the breadth of Munakata’s work, which ranges from prints to calligraphy, sumi ink paintings, watercolors, lithographs and ceramics and sometimes included a vibrant color palette inspired by the colorful floats of lanterns at Nebuta’s annual festivals in his hometown of Aomori. Organized from the rare collection of the Japan Society, the largest Munakata collection in the United States, the installation revisits this imaginative artist of the twentieth century.
A highlight of the installation is the complete Tōkaidō Series (1964), a set of sixty-one prints – half in color and half in black and white – which depict scenes the artist witnessed on a journey along the historic coastal road between Tokyo and Kyoto. Munakata’s series extends to Osaka, drawing on the 19th century ukiyo-e the representation of the master engraver Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) of the fifty-three traditional stations. This complete set of Munakata will be presented for the first time since 1965.
Whatever the medium, Munakata’s artistic explorations are characterized by fiery curiosity and relentless experimentation. Munakata incorporated various sources and inspirations into his dynamic works, including Japanese folk tales, Buddhism, Western literature and poetry, and motifs from nature. With its bold, spontaneous and sketch-like lines, Munakata has developed an innovative style that has revolutionized the medium of printing on wood. Associated with the 20th century sōsaku hanga (creative prints) and recognized by leaders of the mingei (folk craft) movement of the same era, Munakata extended the traditional small-scale ukiyo-e format to create large-scale pieces that span the whole of the block of wood. His widely acclaimed prints have won international awards, including at the Lugano (1952), São Paulo (1955) and Venice (1956) Biennials. In addition to a selection of his seminal woodcuts, this exhibition features an important, though lesser-known body of work, including calligraphy and much-loved paintings by Munakata.
A major element of the exhibition marks Munakata’s first stay in the United States and includes works made expressly for the Japan Society as well as works made in New York. The city had special significance for Munakata. In 1959, he traveled to New York as a member of the Japan Society Artist Program, which invited artists, including Munakata and Yayoi Kusama, to exchange cultural ideas and establish an international dialogue. Based in New York City for her six-month visit, Munakata has lectured and organized exhibitions across the United States accompanied by Beate Sirota Gordon (1923-2014), a women’s rights activist and contributing editor. of the Constitution of Japan after WWII. Gordon was the founding director of performing arts at the Japan Society and she also performed Munakata, eventually becoming a longtime friend. Munakata returned to New York again in 1965 under the auspices of the Japan Society, and it was then that he donated many of the works that today constitute the main institutional collection. Other important works of Munakata were donated to the Society by Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd at the opening of the Japan Society building in 1971.
Other works in this exhibition are thematically linked to Buddhist influences and recurring Munakata motifs, such as owls, hawks and sunflowers inspired by Vincent Van Gogh, the artistic hero of Munakata. This installation is further enriched by the artist’s personal ephemera and two original woodcuts – shown for the first time in the United States – for Ten Disciples and Two Bodhisattvas (1939/1948), which complete the rare and complete set of this important work of the Japan Society. These objects are on loan from the family of Beate Sirota Gordon, Munakata’s researcher and granddaughter, Yoriko Ishii, and from the Munakata Shikō Memorial Art Museum in Aomori, Munakata’s hometown.
The original design of the exhibition is carried out by MAIO, based in New York and Barcelona, which offers a fresh and free presentation that uses the works of art themselves to define the exhibition space and the visual experience. . “Shikō Munakata created his works from an unusual proximity. A visual impairment forced him to work with his eyes a few inches from the block of wood, thus focusing on specific areas and details more than on the whole, which further reinforces the haptic nature of the works, ”explains MAIO. The scenography of the exhibition aims to restore this feeling of proximity, while playing freely with reinterpreted techniques and concepts, such as urazaishiki (back coloring) or zakki (a set of ordinary elements) to bring a new perspective to the large body of his works. Shikō Munakata: a way of seeing is organized by the Japan Society and organized by Tiffany Lambert, Curator, Japan Society.