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Biography: MUNAKATA Shikô (棟方志功)

Munakata Shiko examining his woodcut
Munakata Shikô examining his woodcut
Hanakarishô (Flower hunting: 華狩頌), 1954
Life Magazine cover

Munakata Shiko carving a block The high-myope Munakata carving a woodblock

Munakata Shiko signature
"Shikô Munakata" signature and seal


Munakata Shiko 1939 RahulaMunakata Shikô (棟方志功 1903-1975) was once described by the novelist Jun'ichirô Tanizaki as "an impertinent artist who gouges the universe." Today, Munakata is recognized internationally as a near-legendary artist of astounding energy and sensitivity. Munakata's work was influenced by the Buddhist folk tradition of Japan, but his vision was also distilled through his personal expression of Zen Buddhism and the spirit of Shintô combined with elements of mingei (folk craft).

Munakata was moved by what he called the "power of the board." He even used a different first character when calling his prints hanga, his version translating into something more like "board picture" than the standard term (which is closer to "print picture"). By calling his prints itaga ("board pictures" or "woodblock art": 板画) instead of hanga (block prints: 版画), he emphasized the wood itself as the source of the art rather than the process of printing from wood. He said, "When I first made hanga, I used the usual character, han [print: 版], but when I understood the true meaning of hanga, it had to be hanga that maintained the importance of being brought to life from the board. I realized that, for me, it was no good unless the spirit of the wood was being born. Because I heard the voice of the board, I decided to use the character for 'board' [ita]."

Munakata believed that the artist must succumb to the power of the board. He worked at great speed, as if the form had to be released from within the board before it dissipated. He said, "My line must be executed in one quick and spontaneous stroke, as I do not believe in retouching. For the work to be fully animated, one's fresh and raw energy must be shown."

Munakata was drawn to prints when, in 1926, he saw "Early Summer Breeze," a woodcut by Kawakami Sumio. The lightly hand-colored print depicted a woman in Western dress holding a parasol. On the right of the figure, Kawakami had inscribed a poem of his own. Munakata was inspired by the beauty of the design as well as by the poem.

Munakata's first prints were published in 1928, and by 1935 he had become more widely recognized for his unusual talent and personality. Munakata was the third Japanese print artist to win an international print-competition honor when he was awarded the "Prize of Excellence" at the Second International Print Exhibition in Lugano, Switzerland in 1952. Saitô Kiyoshi (斎藤清 1907-1997)  and Komai Tetsurô (駒井哲郎 1920-1976) had won prizes at the First Sao Paulo Biennale in 1951.) Munakata was the first Japanese artist to be awarded a grand prize in international competition when he secured that honor at the Third Sao Paulo Biennale in 1955 for three of the panels in his Ten Great Disciples series; see example at right). He won such an award again at the 28th Venice Biennale in 1956. The Japanese government granted him its highest honor in the arts, the Order of Culture, in November 1970. By the end of his life, Munakata had worked in the media of woodblock prints, lithography, Japanese painting (yamato-e: 大和絵), oil painting, calligraphy, and ceramics, producing as many as 10,000 works.

According to the collector and author Oliver Statler (Modern Japanese Prints: An Art Reborn, 1956), Munakata used a straight chisel for hard lines and a curved chisel for softer ones. He held his chisel like a brush or pencil and turned the block (solid katsura, 桂) as he worked. Statler quoted Munakata, who said, "The choice of wood shows the character of the artist.  (magnolia, 朴) spreads as you cut it so that the chisel runs easily. Katsura is tougher and as it's cut, it pinches the tool, so that it gives me some resistance."

In many early works, Munakata added colors by hand on the front surface of the prints, but he found it obscured the black keyblock lines, ruining the design. Around 1945, Yanagi Sôetsu (柳宗悦 1889-1961), head of the Japan Folk Art Museum in Tokyo, and art critic, philosopher, and founder of the mingei (folk art: 民芸) movement in Japan in the late 1920s and 1930s, suggested coloring from the verso and allowing the pigments to bleed through to the front. Munakata was quite pleased with the results and called the technique urazaishiki ("back-coloring: 裏彩色). He would incorporate this type of coloring whenever he believed using only sumi (black) pigment did not achieve the particular feeling he desired in a design.

Munakata's finest achievement is generally said to be his series Nibosatsu shaka jûdai deshi (Two bodhisattvas and ten great disciples of Sakya: 二菩薩釈迦十大弟子), carved in 1939. The set of 10 disciples (plus the two bodhisattvas) was conceived as a six-fold screen (two images on each leaf). During World War II, Munakata used the original blocks from this series to shore up the walls of an air-raid shelter he had excavated in his backyard. Although his house was destroyed by bombing in 1945, and most of his other woodblocks were burned, the disciples survived. This allowed him to continue pulling impressions from the block for many years, as in the example shown above, Rakara no saku (羅歌羅の柵), printed in 1960. This expressive work portrays Râhula, Master of the Esoteric. He was the only son of Siddhârtha Gautama (the Buddha; c. 563 or 480 to 483 or 400 BCE).

In 1945, just after the end of the war, Munakata produced another important set on a Buddhist theme, this time 24 images (20 were female) intended to be mounted as a pair of six-fold screens (two images on each leaf). Titled Shôkei shô hangakan (Print volume in praise of Shôkei: 鐘渓頌版画巻), the series was a tribute to Munakata's friend and supporter in the Mingei (Folk Art: 民芸) movement, Kawai Kanjirô (河井寬次郎 1890-1966), one of Japan's great twentieth-century potters (who refused all official honors, including the designation of Ningen Kokuhô 人間国宝, Living National Treasure). Munakata showed 12 of the 24 prints at the aforementioned Third Sao Paulo Biennale in 1955.

During a one-week visit to Philadelphia in 1959, Munakata worked with Arthur L Flory (1914-1972; his name in Japanese would be アーサー・フローリー Âsâ furôrî), a graphic artist and author/illustrator of children's books who was head of the Graphics Department and an instructor of graphics, printing, and drawing at the Tyler School of Art at Temple University. Quickly learning the techniques of lithography from Flory, Munakata explored the medium by creating a group of seven lithographs: two works of Buddhist figures, two prints of nudes, and one each of owls, calligraphy, and a scene of a large apple tree outside Flory’s studio. It was an invigorating and productive collaboration, and the two artists remained friends thereafter. They worked together the following year when Flory received a Rockefeller Foundation Grant sanctioned by the Japan Society to teach lithography in Japan. Flory supervised a workshop in Shinjuku, Tokyo, where he interacted with forty-two artists, producing sixty-four designs in editions of fifteen to twenty impressions. On November 10, 1960, Flory, who like many others was amazed by the speed at which Munakata worked, wrote: "Munakata came this morning and knocked off four stones."

Munakata's prints have a distinctive spontaneity and spiritual energy. He saw himself as a temporary medium through which the design, not really his own, could be revealed. As a result, unlike Onchi Kôshirô and other artists of the sôsaku hanga (creative print: 創作版画) movement who advocated self-expression in their printmaking, Munakata disclaimed individual responsibility as an artist. For him, artistic creation was only one of many manifestations of nature's force and beauty, which is inherent in the woodblock. In Munakata's words, "The essence of hanga lies in the fact that one must give in to the ways of the board ... there is a power in the board, and one cannot force the tool against that power."

On November 17, 1975, in the year of his death, the Munakata Shikô Memorial Museum of Art (Munakata Shikô Kinenkan: 棟方志功記念館) opened in Aomori, Japan, the artist's home city. The building is a two-floor, iron-rebar structure done in a log-cabin or "school-house" style. The museum has the largest number of Munakata's works in Japan. Its collection includes woodcuts, lithographs, sumi-ink paintings (some also with colors) on paper and boards, oil paintings, calligraphy, illustrated books, and original carved wood planks. More than 700 items are rotated in four exhibits per year, although Munakata's aforementioned masterpiece Nibosatsu shaka jûdai deshi is always on display in the Memorial Hall.

Munakata's works are in numerous private collections and in public institutions, including the Art Gallery of New South Wales; Art Institute of Chicago; Asian Art Museum, San Francisco; British Museum, London; Brooklyn Museum, New York; Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; Cincinnati Art Museum; Detroit Institute of Art; Fine Art Museums of San Francisco; Harvard Art Museums; Honolulu Museum of Art; Japan Folk Art Museum, Tokyo; Los Angeles County Museum of Art;Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Minneapolis Museum of Art; Munakata Shikô Memorial Museum of Art; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo; National Museum of Asian Art (Smithsonian), Washington, D.C.; National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto; National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo; Philadelphia Museum of Art; and Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

The text provided here is based in large part on John Fiorillo's Munakata Shikô web page: