Shinagawa Takumi (品川工 1908-2009), born in Kashiwazaki City, Niigata Prefecture, was the son-in-law of a traditional Buddhist sculptor. He studied metalwork and handicrafts at the Tokyo Prefectural College of Industrial Art (Tokyo Furitsu Kogei Gakko), graduating in 1928. Not long after, he was impressed by László Moholy-Nagy's book "Von Material zu Architektur" (From Materials to Architecture, 1929) in a Japanese translation, and started producing paper sculptures and assembled objects. In fact, Shinagawa was known to have liked being called a "sculptor" rather than a "printer." He also mentioned the Western artists Paul Gauguin, Pablo Picasso, and Joan Miró as influences.
In 1935, while working at a printing company in Tokyo, Shinagawa showed some of his work, including prints, to Onchi Kôshirô, who encouraged him to pursue printmaking. An exhibition of Shinagawa's prints, mobiles, and photographic works in 1945 brought him some public recognition. Througout his career, he remained true to Onchi's spirit of experimentation, working in other media besides prints, including object-sculptures and assemblages, posters, mirror printing, and color-photograms. Even so, he occasionally taught printmaking. Two of his students were the artists Iwami Reika (b. 1927) and Rei Yuki (1928-2003). He also lectured at the Women's Junior College of Fine Arts, Tokyo.
Shinagawa said that the depth of color found in ukiyo-e prints fascinated him, which led to a special interest in the characteristics of color as printed on paper and to Shinagawa's mixing his own colors to achieve the desired hues. His experimentation led to his using paper blocks partly or entirely in much of his printed work. Shinagawa also commented on the quality of line in ukiyo-e prints, which he found "problematic" because the wood was carved away from the sides of the line and thus the line was not "directly" created. He decided to experiment with cutting away or gouging out the areas representing the line (as in traditional wood engraving), to "reveal the form and its shadows." Shinagawa explained his feeling about line in this way: "If I draw or visualize a line on a block and then cut away the wood on both side to leave that line, I feel that I am merely reproducing a line I previously created. But if I take my chisel and gouge out the line, I feel that my hand and my mind are working together in an act of creation, the same way as a painter with a brush. It's an entirely different kind of feeling, spontaneous and free."
The figure at the top right is titled Haiyû (Kabuki actor: 俳优) from 1953 is a large-format print on paper measuring 600 x 375 mm. Like other sôsaku hanga ("creative print": 創作版画) artists who self-carved and self-printed their works, Shinagawa experimented with incorporating woodgrain patterns into his designs and simplifying his forms. Here, Shinagawa used the blue bands of color plus the grain pattern (from a block cut with curved-blade chisels) to suggest the bold face make-up called kumadori ("taking the shadows"" 隈取) used in aragoto ("rough stuff": 荒事) plays made popular by the Ichikawa (市川) family of actors in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The print was made with five blocks of plywood faced with shina (basswood or Japanese linden) that were used in five printing stages. Pigments were German colorants plus Japanese white or shell powder (gofun, 胡粉) and some powdered mica applied to torinoko (鳥の子) paper. The background includes very dark bands [difficult to see in this scan] of green, blue, and purple resulting from overprinting the colors. Shinagawa's composition does not depict a specific actor, role, or scene from a play. It is, instead, an evocation of the appearance and compelling presence of a kabuki actor adorned in stage makeup while in performance. The design represents an imaginative adaptation of traditional iconography, a transformation into simplified anthropomorphic forms. Although not portraiture in the strictest sense, it nevertheless distills the essence of an actor's form in an aragoto role, and despite its abstraction, it does not lack emotional feeling in the stylized but expressive face. By critical consensus, this is Shinagawa's masterpiece.
In the 1940s, Shinagawa tried his hand at various subjects and styles. In a few instances he explored the expressive potential of monochrome or two-color design, as, for example, in the above landscape and depiction of a stone Buddha, both from 1947. For the landscape, Shinagawa exploited the dramatic contrast between an intense green and equally vibrant yellow plus some overprinting, to produce a bold view of curved forms. In Sekibutsu (Stone Buddha: 石仏), he was interested in the beauty that survives within ruins. The peaceful expression on the Buddha's face seems a perfect antidote to the state of decay as the stone Buddha lies on its side. Statler (ref. below) mentions that Shinagawa sketched the head from a statue in his studio.
Also around this time, Shinagawa designed an unusual print called Umibe no gensô (Fantasy of the sea: 海べ幻想) from 1948. Fairly large in size (419 x 356 mm), it portrays a classically modeled head in the Western manner, perhaps meant to be Poseidon (Neptune), or at least a sea-god. (Given the model used by Shinagawa for his Stone Buddha the year before, and the fact that he was also a sculptor, it seems likely that Shinagawa also used a plaster-cast statue in his studio as a model for the sea god.) The monochromatic display of drawing, carving, and printing skills makes for a potent image.
An untitled still life from around the late 1940s was also inspired by the sea. The arrangement features a large conch set against a black form. There is also, in the unusual blue textured background (presumably meant to evoke the sea), a pale yellow snail and a small eel. The manner of composition and selection of objects is reminiscent of works by Onchi Kôshirô, Yamaguchi Gen, and Sekino Jun'ichirô.
As a disciple of Onchi, Shinagawa was under the spell of the master for a few years. His designs during the late 1940s and very early 1950s reflected the Onchi aesthetic, including the distinctive abstract visual vocabulary and printing methodology. Shinagawa contributed three designs to the Ichimokushû (First Thursday Collection: 一木集), created by the informal group of artists (the Ichimokukai, or First Thursday Society, 一 木会) who orbited around Onchi, meeting regularly at his house in Tokyo from 1939 to 1950, and also producing six portfolios of prints, one by each member, for six years (1944 and 1946-1950). Shinagawa's designs were included in the 1947, 1949, and 1950 portfolios. The last example is shown below left. In conception it is straight out of Onchi's oeuvre. Perhaps Shinagawa wanted to not only learn Onchi's techniques and experiment with the master's subject matter and compositional style, but also pay homage to him.
In the same style, Shinagawa produced another Onchi-inspired work, titled "Form B" in English below the image, without a date (probably early 1950s). Here the printing is harder edged and the paper slightly less absorbent, thus losing some of the Onchi-like softness of forms. Even so, it is a mixed-media print for which Shinagawa used a feather and a length of string as printing "objects." The texture in the large brown-red form is very complex and might not have come from a carved woodblock, but rather a textile or rough paper block. Regardless, it is interesting to note a comment offered by Statler (ref. below): "Like Onchi, Shinagawa has experimented widely with paper blocks, and many of his prints are made with paper blocks or a combination of wood and paper blocks. He is particularly interested in the textural effects he can obtain by making blocks from different papers. For example, a paper of uneven thickness will give a mottled effect. In printing from paper blocks Shinagawa usually fastens the blocks to a board and prints the same way he would from a wood block, using a kentô [registration mark] on the board. If he wants a lighter effect he may lay the print on its back, place the paper block on top, and print with a thin paper between the block and his baren."
Some of Shinagawa's printed works are better understood when compared to his assemblages or mobiles. For instance, Haru no fu (Music in spring: 春の谱), a woodcut from circa 1960-65, is a composition with playful shapes that seem to float in space. Although there are no lines connecting the forms in the print, it would not be much of a stretch to see similarities with Shinagawa's mobiles, including Kao (Face: 顔) circa 1960s, made with materials such as with aluminum plate, wire, plastic, and melamine paint (a synthetic-resin liquid plastic used to paint over plastic surfaces). The disembodied elements in Kao float about, harnessed by wires, as their positions in space alter constantly and the gray shadows cast behind change as well. So, too, Shnigawa's Haru no fu suggests suspension and movement in space.
Very late in his long life, Shinagawa was still producing prints, specifically silkscreens, in part because it was rather difficult to carve woodblocks at an advanced age. He embraced a bright palette and energetic gestural flourishes on large-format paper. In one example, untitled but called "Interlacing color planes" from 2004, a complex sweep of overlapping colors competes with dark branches of natural forms in an intensely vivid display of graphic skill.
The Nerima Art Museum, Tokyo has held several exhibitions of Shinagawa's works, including the 1996 exhibition "Media and Expression: The Techniques of Contemporary Art in the Works of Takumi Shinagawa and Katsuhiro Yamaguchi," and the 2008 retrospective "Takumi Shinagawa: Commemorating his 100th Birthday." Most recently, the same museum presented "Tenth Anniversary of His Death, Takumi Shinagawa: Combination Form," from November 2019 to February 2020.
Works by Shinagawa are found in many public institutions, including the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria; Art Gallery of New South Wales; Art Institute of Chicago; British Museum, London; Brooklyn Museum, New York; Carnegie Museum of Art;Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; Harvard Art Museum/Arthur M. Sackler Museum; Los Angeles County Museum of Modern Art; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; National Museum of Modern Art, Osaka; National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo; and Oxford Museum, England. © 1999-2020 by John Fiorillo