March 22, 2014

Shiko Munakata's Itaga

        Shiko Munakata (Japan, 1903-1975) was a woodcut artist who emphasized the importance of the wood and the block rather than the artist’s will.  According to Frank Castle, “he worked in a very rough and aggressive manner, and often used the ends of boxes, very rough wood, like orange crates, and then he would use chisels, and… just work frantically and often would carve a block within a matter of a few minutes.”  Clearly this was a major departure from the incredibly controlled traditional Japanese hanga technique.  It was more consistent with movements in Western art of the mid-twentieth century.
        Munakata wrote a book on The Way of the Woodcut, in which he propounded his ideas about art as a manifestation of nature’s force, with the artist as a mere conduit.  He said, “The nature of the woodcut is such, that even a mistake in its carving will not prevent it from its 
true materialization.”  I suppose this should comfort all my doubts about my own Variations on a Traditional Theme woodcut and its many mistakes!  Certainly you can see in Munakata’s work that he wasn’t bothered by irregular gouges or rough backgrounds.  This first piece above is my favorite.  I really love the composition with the little bird amid the tangle of branches.  
        Another of Munakata’s claims was that “It is inherent in the woodcut that it can never be ugly.”  I’m afraid I can’t agree with him there!  Munakata did a number of woodcuts that I don’t find pleasing at all, particularly of people.  I’ve included this woman’s head because it’s my favorite of his people that I saw.  She is a lot smoother and more controlled than much of his other work, and her features with her tiny mouth are quite traditional, as well.
        I like this hawk a lot.  The rough, unplanned carving works well for the pattern and texture of rough feathers.  The patterns continue on the twigs and flowers around the edges.  The hawk completely fills the block, going to the very edges, which I think is an interesting composition choice.
        One final quotation from Munakata, a bit grandiose and pretentious perhaps, but pleasing (if amusing) to any true block print lover: “Like the vastness of space, like a universe unlimited, untold, unattainable, and inscrutable - that is the woodcut.”  Oh, yeah!

[Pictures: Bush Warbler, woodcut by Shiko Munakata, 1959 (Image from invaluable);
Daisho Head of Woman, woodcut by Munakata, 1961 (Image from Art Gallery of Greater Victoria);
Kotaka (Fledgling Hawk), woodcut by Munakata, 1951 (Image from The Cleveland Museum of Art).]
Frank Castle quotation from Antiques Roadshow.
Shiko Munakata quotations from Munakata: the “Way” of the Woodcut, 1961.

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