The Ten Great Disciples of Buddha
Mandarin Duck
Eulogy to Shokei
Euology to Flower Hunting
Stations on the Eastern Sea Route Between Tokyo and Osaka
"Shiko Munakata: The Modern Master of Woodblock Art," May 21-Sept. 27, 1998, at the Japan Society, 333 E. 47th Street, New York, N.Y.

Japanese novelist Jun'ichiro Tanizaki called Shiko Munakata (1903-1975) "an impertinent artist." He meant that Munakata totally disregarded hundreds of years of tradition in woodblock-making -- he used wrong tools, for instance, and wrinkled the paper. He went totally against the grain and created his own tradition. Judge for yourself at Munakata's exhibition of 68 works, including woodcuts, ink paintings and calligraphy, on view at the Japan Society through Sept. 27.

Born one of l2 children in a blacksmith's family, Munakata didn't go to school but did teach himself to paint after seeing a reproduction of van Gogh's Sunflowers. Van Gogh, who was inspired by Japanese ukiyo-e (floating world) prints, proved too difficult a master, so Munakata turned to the wood-block print with a vengeance. Beginning in the 1920s, Munakata rejected the refinement of traditional Japanese art and became "a gouger of the universe." Attacking the block with children's chisels after making only rudimentary preparatory drawings, he worked with incredible speed and diffidence, producing his gods and goddesses, animals and flowers with unreal proficiency.

"I want to reach a state where there is no boundary between self and other, or between body and soul," he wrote, "and everything is absorbed into the print itself." It is not surprising that he cites the German Expressionists, Toulouse-Lautrec and the Fauves as influences.

Myopic and blind in one eye, Munakata had to work in extremely close quarters, hunching over his work while ripping, wrinkling, smearing and knotting his papers in order to wrest an image out of the recalcitrant materials at his disposal. His profound Buddhist beliefs helped him overcome the extreme poverty in which he lived, as well as the destruction of much of his work in the fire raids on Tokyo during World War II.

Demonstrating his Buddhist background, Munakata once wrote, "If the artist succeeds, then the block, regardless of size, will possess hirogari -- the cosmic energy produced when the soul of the artist meets the soul of the block. Only then will the true beauty of the woodblock burst forth." Seemingly successful in the achievement of hirogari, self-portraits of the smiling artist loom over the entrance to the Japan's Society's gallery space, welcoming the viewer to the exhibition.

The Ten Great Disciples of Buddha (l939-48), a huge hanging scroll (almost 12 feet tall) featuring l2 woodcuts, is one of the most famous of Munakata's works. Two bodhisattvas -- beings that forego Buddhahood temporarily in order to help man achieve the right path -- are accompanied by 10 disciples. The bodhisattva woodcuts are actually second versions, as the originals were destroyed during the war.

Although some may be tempted, it would be reductive to compare this scroll with medieval representations of the l2 apostles. Munakata's figures have a simplicity of movement unseen in Western imagery. Like most of Munakata's work, this scroll is in black and white. On rare occasions when color is added, sometimes from the back of the paper, the basic elements still retain a simple black-and-white purity.

A later woodblock from 1965, Two Goddesses owes something to the work of Maillol. The two voluminous figures seem to be floating in space, their expressions serious, yet relaxed. The accompanying caption reads "In the Oak Tree in the Garden," in answer to the question "Where is Buddha?"

Munakata's work in calligraphy is shown in the Heart Sutra of l959. The accordion-like scroll attests to Shiko's high skill in this discipline.

Eulogy to Flower Hunting (l954) shows how much Munakata owes to the Japanese folk art movement known as "Mingei." Made from an irregularly sized block (l45 x l75 cm), the delightful pageant of horsemen and dogs intertwined with vines and flowers captures the bucolic pleasures of the Japanese countryside.

Another masterpiece, Eulogy for Shokei (l945), consists of 24 hand-colored prints mounted on a six-panel folding screen. It was made in honor of Munakata's close friend, the celebrated potter Kanjiro Kawai, whose Kyoto kiln was called Shokei Kawai. It celebrates the "wild spirit" that is so much a part of Munakata's artistic persona.

Among the most celebrated of Munakata's works are the l964 Stations on the Eastern Sea Route Between Tokyo and Osaka. Each of the 61 woodblocks in the series portrays an element of the landscape of eastern Japan. Departing from the traditional, more stylized depictions of genre scenes, the strangely foreboding images of the Tokaido stations and towns move the eye and the spirit in their minimalist representations. We are fortunate to find so many of them on display at the gallery. My favorite is Rain over the Yodo River.

Plans for a larger Munakata exhibition at the Japan Society are in the works.

FRED STERN writes on art and antiques.