Shikō Munakata: A Way of Seeing
On ViewJapan Society
December 10, 2021 – March 20, 2022
Shikō Munakata (1903–75), a Tokyo-based printmaker, became internationally famous in the 1950s. Starting in 1959, he often visited New York, which he thought of as his second home. Much inspired by Vincent van Gogh, (who himself was of course much influenced by prints from Japan), Munakata modernized the style of classic Japanese prints to present subjects from contemporary life. This exhibition includes nearly 100 of his woodblock prints, most in black-and-white, some in color. So far as I can see, notwithstanding his charismatic personal presence, Munakata was not a major influence on American art. Perhaps this was because he was primarily a printmaker, or possibly it’s because he didn’t work abstractly; but maybe it was because the visual cultures were distant at this time, and so the American Abstract Expressionists needed to find their own way to a vision of creative spontaneity akin, in part, to his. In any case, because Munakata’s art has not been much on display recently in Manhattan, this large exhibition is a most welcome event.
In the first gallery of the Japan Society is the complete “Tōkaidō Road” series (1964), a set of 61 prints—half in color and half in black-and-white—that depict scenes the artist witnessed while traveling along the historic coastal route between Tokyo and Kyoto. Thus, in number 12 we see Mishima: Teahouse Among the Maples, in which the small teahouse is surrounded by the majestic trees. In number 14, which resembles Richard Serra’s drawings, Hara: A Line at the Foot of Mt. Fuji we view an abstracted geometrical image of that mountain. And in number 60 Moriguchi: Sudden Rain Shower at the Yodogawa River, the heavy lines of rain descend on the river. The three other galleries include marvelous photographs of Munakata’s family and working techniques; images of motifs inspired by van Gogh: owls, hawks, and sunflowers; and the two woodblocks for his Buddhist-inspired art, The Two Bodhisattvas and Ten Great Disciples of Buddha (1939–48). Munakata painted very swiftly, and so there is a great deal to see here.
I became interested in Munakata thanks to Arthur Danto’s essay “Munakata in New York,” originally published in 1980 in The Print Collector’s Newsletter. For all of his admiration for Andy Warhol, and his love for Sean Scully, this commentary is Danto’s most personal piece of art criticism. Since Munakata’s prints seemingly have no immediate connection to Danto’s aesthetic theorizing, for a long time the highly personal tone of this essay puzzled me. And then I realized how to understand what must have happened. In the 1950s, when Danto—who was both teaching philosophy at Columbia University and also making and exhibiting his prints—met Munakata they became close friends. Indeed, they traded artworks. At that time, Danto said in his memoir, “[I] sought to keep my two activities somewhat separate and to live in two worlds at once.” And so in 1980, discussing Munakata allowed Danto, who was not generally given to excessive retrospective reflections, to tell, also, the story of his own early career as a printmaker, which ended full stop in 1964.
In Munakata in New York, after remarking on the fragility of memory, Danto says: “Places in New York and moments in my life are enchanted by [Munakata’s] presence there and then.” And then, observing that this “presence was unique, and only the memory of it tempers the sadness that it is gone irrevocably,” he concludes: “I have wanted to put it into words, against the oblivion that is our terror and consolation.” The words of this fine tribute can now be applied also to Danto’s art, for, towards the very end of his long life, a retrospective exhibition of his prints revealed some real affinities with Munakata’s works. And there’s more, I want to suggest, to this story. In “The Philosopher as Andy Warhol,” one of his many essays on Warhol, Danto quotes Warhol’s account of his fascination with “all the great modern things the Abstract Expressionists tried so hard not to notice at all.” “Pop art,” Warhol goes on to say in this quotation, “is a way of liking things.” As for Munakata, Danto writes, “there were … no views, no scenes … everything was paintable … whatever was there, before the eye, was equally worthy of being put into paint with everything else.” Is this statement not a real anticipation of the worldview of Pop art? What Danto gained from Munakata, I would suggest, was some ideas about how to describe Warhol’s visual philosophy.
However, for a New York audience in need of an introduction to Munakata, this is a frustrating installation. The Japan Society galleries are spacious, but they are not effectively employed. The “Tōkaidō Road Series,” the most important body of works on display, is double hung on a diagonal in the first room, which places the upper row of prints too high, and the lower row too low. Munakata was very nearsighted, and so when he worked, his heavy glasses almost touched the paper. But this is no reason to force viewers to adopt similar contortions. In the second gallery, the screens are effectively displayed. But then in the third gallery, Munakata’s woodblocks are hung on a spiral installed in the center, which calls attention to the display but does nothing for the art. The catalogue, available as a handout, is a checklist that doesn’t effectively place him in either his own culture or modern art history. If you want to see why Munakata matters, read Arthur Danto’s luminous essay.
Arthur Danto, “Munakata in New York. A Memory of the 1950s,” and “The Philosopher as Andy Warhol,” are both reprinted in his Philosophizing Art. Selected Essays (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999): quotations 176, 180, 184, 74. On Danto’s art, see my essay in artcritical: https://artcritical.com/2011/01/01/danto-artist/.