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VJP title
Utamaro print showing


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MUNAKATA Shikô (1903-75)


Munakata orchids Munakata kanji Munakata Shikô (棟方志功) 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 own personal expression of Zen Buddhism and the spirit of Shintô mixed 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"). He believed that the artist must succumb to the power of the board. Munakata 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 saw himself as a sort of temporary medium through which the design, not really his own, could be revealed. As a result, his prints have great spontaneity and a unique spiritual energy. His first prints were published in 1928, and by 1935 he had become more widely recognized for his unusual talent and personality. Munakata was the first Japanese print artist to win an international honor when he was awarded the "Prize of Excellence" at the Second International Print Exhibition in Lugano, Switzerland in 1952. He also won grand prizes at the Third Sao Paulo Biennale in 1955 and the 28th Venice Biennale in 1956. The Japanese government awarded him its highest honor in the arts, the Order of Culture, in November 1970.

Munakata detail The figure above is a sumizuri-e (printed in black only) in large format (414 x 470 mm) depicting orchids by a lake for the month of February from a series of twelve calendar prints for the year 1956. It is signed "Shikô" in kanji and "Munakata" in romaji, and includes his large red seal with the honorary Buddhist title Hôgen (the second highest ranking, awarded to him in 1962 by two Buddhist temples). Munakata would typically date his prints with the year he printed each impression, not the year the block was carved. Such is the case with his orchids print, which was carved in 1956, but dated 1962. Munakata also used a hand-drawn chrysanthemum blossom for his familiar kakihan (writing seal) of a stylized pine needle (said to derive from one used by his grandfather, who was a swordmaker and his father, who used it on tools for his blacksmith's trade). Impressions of "February — Orchids" are known with hand coloring, a technique used to great effect by Munakata (see figures below).

Munakata back#1 Munkata front#1 Munakata first used the technique of urazaishiki ("back coloring," a term associated with paintings) in 1938 when he brushed colors on the back of prints in his series Kannongyô hangakan. An example of this technique is shown in figure on the left. It is signed in pencil, has two artist's seals stamped in red, is dated 7/28/59, and is numbered 3/70 (Munakata did not typically number his prints). Munakata's energetic application of bright colors on the verso of the print can be readily seen. He expressed the vitality of his vision by boldly brushing on the colors without confining each color to within specific areas of the design [see larger image]. Note that Munakata did not restrict himself to coloring only the white areas of the print, but also applied wide strokes of dark blue and purple even in the sumi-printed (black) areas. The colors have bled through to the front only where he has cut away the block to produce the white areas. This effect, plus the softening of the original intensity of the colors from the bleed-through (plus slight fading), can be seen in the figure on the right. © 1999-2001, 2014 by John Fiorillo


  • Castile, Rand: Shikô Munakata: Works on Paper. New York: Japan Society, 1982.
  • Fujii, Hisae: Shikô Munakata. Tokyo: National Museum of Modern Art, 1985, pp. iv-ix and plate 48-2.
  • Jenkins, Donald: Images of a Changing World: Japanese Prints of the Twentieth Century. Portland: Portland Art Museum, 1983, pp. 106-110.
  • Kung, David: The contemporary artist in Japan. Honolulu: East-West Center Press, 1966, p. 155.*
  • Stanley-Baker, Joan: Mokuhan: The Woodcuts of Munakata & Matsubara. Victoria, BC: Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, 1976.
  • Yanagi, Sôri: The Woodblock and the Artist: The Life and Work of Shikô Munakata. Tokyo & New York: Kodansha, 1991.
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