Shiko Munakata is by many regarded as one of the most significant modern Japanese artists of the twentieth century. His art work consists of paintings, prints, ceramics and calligraphy. Looking at his art work, the way he produced it and his fame, one could be tempted to call him the Japanese Picasso of the twentieth century - in every aspect.
First Publication: May 2002
Latest Update: September 2013
Shiko Munakata was born as the son of a blacksmith in Aomori Prefecture, located in the North of Japan's main island. He first began to paint in oil as a self-taught artist. Later in 1924 he went to Tokyo to study art.
Three years after the artist's death, the city of Aomori opened the Munakata Shiko Memorial Museum of Art. The museum web site has one page with a summary of the career of the artist in English.
At the age of 23 Munakata Shiko saw a woodblock print by Sumio Kawakami and decided to try woodblocks himself. Under the guidance of Unichi Hiratuka he learned the art of making moku-hanga - woodblock prints. Three years later he exhibited 4 woodblocks at the Shunyokai exhibition. From now on Munakata Shiko was a hanga artist - a print artist. He continued to exhibit and by and by his reputation grew.
After World War II had ended, the artist became famous outside Japan. His works were shown at the Lugano Print Exhibition in 1952, the Sao Paulo Biennal in 1955, the Venice Biennal in 1956. In each of these exhibitions he was awarded with first prizes. After these successful exhibition, Munakata went to the U.S., where he lectured at different universities and had numerous solo exhibitions.
Munakata Shiko preferred to call his prints banga, which could be translated like picture made from a wooden panel.
Munakata was a practicing Buddhist. Many of his prints and paintings show religious subjects. Other subjects are taken from Japanese legends or from nature.
Munakata's prints are larger than the traditional Japanese oban (10x15 inches = 25.4x38 cm) size. With his larger-sized prints he followed Western contemporary artist's and the buying habits of Western clients. Japanese homes are usually small and have little wall space to hang art work and therefore Japanese art buyers tend to buy smaller sizes.
A Munakata print is usually in black and white. The techniques he used are woodblocks, woodcuts and lithographs. Like Pablo Picasso, Shiko Munakata worked spontaneously, fast and was extremely prolific.
Towards the end of his life, Shiko Munakata was honored with medals and public honors. It would be too boring to list them all. He died in Tokyo in 1975 at the age of 72.
At the time when this article was published, the Philadelphia Museum of Art announced a great Munakata retrospective from July 27 - November 10, 2002. The exhibition is organized by the Munakata Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Collection prints by Shiko Munakata is a bit tricky for several reasons. First of all, there has been a lot of hype about this artist. For some time it was, or may still be trendy to own a Shiko Munakata art work.
Often trendy artists cause some problems in the market. One is cheap mass production, and another one are fakes. Shiko Munakata entailed both problems.
Like Picasso or Salvador Dali or Joan Miro, successful artists sooner or later cannot resist the temptation to exploit their fame commercially by creating cheap mass products like prints in editions of thousands, not signed and not numbered, to be sold to many who could normally never afford a real original. Often these "art products" are not even created by the artist himself, but by anonymous, good artisans or art students in a studio.
Most of the cheap Munakata prints that you will encounter in the internet are such creations, published by Munakata Studio. Most of these were published as calendars for a price of usually $100 or less for a sheet. Therefore, whenever you read in connection with a Shiko Muanakta print the words calendar or studio, you should know, this is a cheap, mass-produced thing.
The other problem are fakes, not of the cheap stuff, of course, but the fakes pretend to be expensive items, signed and numbered. Artists like Shiko Munakata whose technical skill is on a level that could easily be challenged by an 8 year old child, are naturally easy to fake.
We at artelinoartelino became victim of such a supposed fake ourselves in our early years. How can you recognize a fake from an original? Actually, you cannot, not really. It is more of a guts process.
Our "fake" Munakata was acquired by a dealer who then submitted it to a self-styled Munakata "expert" group in Tokyo, consisting of leading Tokyo based ukiyo-e dealers, for expertise. These guys then put their thumbs down, and this was it for us. We took the print back of course, after we had paid the consignor from Japan. Needless to say that we have never seen our money again.
Since this experience, we are extremely reticent in taking anything else than these cheap, decorative prints for consignment. Besides, this kind of art is not what I personally like, and I can do well without it.
Author: Dieter Wanczura
Helen Merritt and Nanako Yamada, "Guide to Modern Japanese Woodblock Prints: 1900-1975", published by University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, ISBN 0-8248-1732-X.
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