How Japan’s Master Printer Merged Modern Graphic Art and Buddhism

A new exhibition at Ronin Gallery examines Shiko Munakata's interest in Buddhist history.

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Mar 3 2017, 10:55pm

Within the long, storied tradition of Japanese woodblock printing, Shiko Munakata stands out as one of the art form's greatest. A pioneering modernist, Munakata's woodblock prints are known for a blend of expressive lines and a monochrome palette (typically black and white), while being influenced by folk art and Buddhist history. A new exhibition of his work at Ronin Gallery, Munakata and the Disciples of Buddha, explores Munakata's interest in the Buddhist roots of his country's woodblock printing, which dates back to the 12th century with ukiyo-e prints of the Edo and Meiji periods. Among the works at the show are his iconic series Ten Great Disciples of Buddha, as well as a rare calligraphy scroll painting and some select hand-colored works.

Our Benefactor in the Sea (1962). 21.5" x 16", hand-colored woodblock print.

Ronin Gallery's David Libertson tells Creators that woodblock printing began in China, arriving in Japan by the 8th century. These works were inseparable from Buddhism, and included the religion's subject matter, from sutras to small, ephemeral imbutsu (stamped Buddha). Since the printmakers made them as an act of devotion, the process was as important as the final product.

During the Edo period (1603-1868), woodblock printing became a more artistic medium aimed at the middle class's urban, pleasure-driven lifestyle, depicting ukiyo-e or "pictures of the floating world." These woodblocks were made by four people—an artist, engraver, printer, and publisher. Demand for Buddhist subject matter declined in the late 19th century, but by the early 20th century Munakata was reestablishing the connection between spirituality and artistic medium.

The shift in Munakata's work began with Ten Disciples of Buddha in 1939. The piece, animated by his renewed interest in spirituality, earned him the first prize international exhibitions held in Lugano (1952) and Sao Paulo (1955), and a grand prize at the 1956 Venice Biennale.

Shiko Munakata at work on a woodblock print. Photograph courtesy of Yoriko Ishii.

"Munakata revives and reimagines the Buddhist spirit at the origins of the medium," says Libertson. "His work is ancient as it is modern. He recognizes a return to ritual, appreciating a power beyond himself that manifests in both his creative process and his completed works."

So, it's not enough to see Munakata as perhaps the best Japanese print artist of the 20th century, and a great modernist, but also an heir to centuries of Buddhist printmaking. This artistic balance is apparent in the collection Ronin Gallery is exhibition.

Sitting in the Half Lotus Position (c. 1950). 14.5" x 11.5", Woodblock print.

"These prints spoke both to the fiercely modern nature of Munakata's work and the intertwined history of Buddhism and the woodblock print," says Libertson. "As Munakata's artistic philosophy was shaped by his Zen philosophy, the spirit of Buddhism can be found in each of his prints. While some works in the exhibition present overtly Buddhist themes, others offer more subtle manifestations of his Buddhist spirit."

This is what, in Libertson's estimation, makes Munakata so unique: he cannot be pinned down to a singular style. While he was part of two major 20th century Japanese print movements—sosaku hanga ("creative prints") and mingei (Folk Art)—Munakata never felt an allegiance to either.

The Infinite Mercy of Buddha: Hana Fukaki no Kokoro (1961). 12.5" x 12.5", Hand-colored woodblock print.

"Munakata defied the norm through his physical act of creation and his guiding philosophy," Libertson notes. "Munakata was extremely near-sighted, requiring him to work with his face so close to the block that his nose would skim the surface. He rarely composed preliminary sketches, instead, working right on the block with a vigorous pace. He often completed a work within a single sitting."

While Munakata, who passed away in 1975, continued experimenting throughout his career with print technique and subject matter, Libertson says his artistry remained intertwined with his spiritual philosophy. And though Buddhist subject matter isn't found in all of his works from 1939 on, the core of Munakata's work is a reflection of his Zen beliefs.

Rahula, Master of the Esoteric, from the series Ten Great Disciples of Buddha (1939). 42" x 15.25", Woodblock print. Printed in 1960.

Click here to learn more about Ronin Gallery's Japanese and East Asian art collection.

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