Munakata & His Circle

New York Asia Week, March 15 — 26, 2007


Scholten Japanese Art and Ryo Iida Asian Art are pleased to announce our fifth collaborative exhibition: Munakata & His Circle, opening March 15, 2007. This exhibition is focused on the woodblock prints of Shiko Munakata (1903-1975) and includes several works done by influential members of Mingei movement ('art of the people' from 'min' -people, and 'gei' -art). In addition to the work of Munakata we are fortunate to exhibit works by Kawai Kanjiro (1890-1966), Hamada Shoji (1894-1978), Serizawa Keisuke (1895-1984) and Muneyoshi (Soetsu) Yanagi (1889-1961).

munikata nude

Shiko Munakata was born in Aomori (northern part of main island of Japan), the third son of a traditional blacksmith. At the age of 21, Munakata decided to go to Tokyo to pursue his love of painting. He studied art while scratching out a living by repairing shoes. Munakata set out to "take hold of a world starting only with me," as an over-literal translation would have it, at the same time as "doing work with its origins in Japan." After years of having his works rejected from various competitive exhibitions, in October 1928 he had his first work accepted for the 9th Imperial Exhibition, an oil painting called "Zatsuen" (fruit field). Later in his career he was awarded first prize at the Lugano Print Exhibition in 1952, the Sao Paulo Biennal in 1955, and the Venice Biennal in 1956.

Munikata print

Munakata's interest in woodblock print art began even earlier. At the age of 23 (in 1926) Shiko Munakata saw a sumizuri-e (black and white) woodblock print by Sumio Kawakami (1895-1972) and was immediately struck by the starkness of the black and white and the artist's ability to capture the mood of a poem that was its inspiration. Up until that time, it was Munakata's goal to emulate his idol, the painter Vincent Van Gogh, and his lavish use of color. But Munakata came to realize that the impressionist artists that he admired so much collected Japanese prints, and that rather than pursue oil painting, a medium that was ultimately foreign to him, he was drawn to the singularly Japanese medium of woodblock printing. Under the guidance of the print artist Unichi Hiratsuka (1895-1997) Munakata learned how to carve and produce woodblock prints. Three years later he exhibited four at the Shunyokai Exhibition. He continued to exhibit and his reputation grew.

Soetsu Yanagi

The Mingei movement, led by Yangai Soetsu, along with Hamada Shoji and Kawai Kanjiro, sought to draw attention to the beauty of the works of ordinary craftsman that spoke to the spiritual and practical needs of life. They founded the Mingei-kai or Nihon Mingei Kyokai (The Japanese Mingei Society or Japan Folk Art Association) in 1926. A decade later Yanagi opened the Mingeikan (Japanese Folk Crafts Museum) in 1936 and became its first director.

That same year, Yanagi noticed Munakata's woodblock printed handscroll of twenty prints (ambitiously mounted horizontally), Yamato shi Uruwashi Hanga Saku (Japan, The Beautiful) at the 1936 exhibition of the Kokugakai art association's annual spring show. When Yanagi approached Munakata to discuss purchasing the work for his new museum, Munakata immediately threw his arms around his new patron; in Munakata's own words: "like a dog wagging its tail' (Yojuro Yasuda, Shiko Munakata, 1958, p. 72). Munakata believed his real printmaking began at the moment of this sale to the museum, claiming "Mingei gave birth to me" (ibid, p. 74).

It was through Yanagi that Munakata befriended other artists of the movement, including, his spiritual mentor, the potter Kawai Kanjiro; the textile artist Serizawa Keisuke; and the potter Hamada Shoji, who was also a benefactor. Remarkably, although these artists worked in different mediums (painting, printing, ceramics and textiles) they found common ground.

In this exhibition, we will attempt to present works which demonstrate the artists' shared idea of beauty and at the same time, evidence of their artistic interactions with each other. Soetsu Yanagi's calligraphy painting, Mushin, shortened from the Zen phrase mushin no shin, translates literally as 'mind of no mind' which traditionally refers to a state into which very highly trained martial artists are said to enter during combat. Mushin is achieved when one feels no anger, fear or ego, and acts or reacts without hesitation. The concept readily translates to the work of Munakata. The speed in which he worked was legendary- painting, carving or printmaking, Munakata completely focused all of his energy, his body, his mind, on producing his art. He would completely loose himself into the painting or carving the block; he said "the mind goes and the tool walks alone" (ibid, p. 80). Yanagi's painting is mounted on the paper that was decorated by the artist, is accompanied by a box certified by his close friend Hamada Shoji.

The exhibition will include eight woodblock prints by Munakata together with one book with an original painting inscribed within. The 1945 hand-colored sumizuri-e print, Calling for a Messenger, from the series, In Praise of Shokei: Kanjiro Kawai's Kiln, inspired this group exhibition. The curious title pays homage to the Kawai as one of the leading potters of the Mingei movement. The print illustrates a demon-like three-eyed guardian figure, Aô, confined, perhaps even captured, by the edges of the composition, his body adorned with flowers. Printed in black and white, Munakata embellishes the print with color applied from verso. Munakata always printed sumizuri-e (using black only), but began to concede to his love of color by applying it from verso (the technique was suggested by Yanagi so as not to interfere with the intensity of the black printing on the front). The print is one of a series of twenty-four inspired by 1936 stay at the home of Kawai at Shokei (in Kyoto), the location of the potter's kiln. The forty-day visit marked a turning point in his spiritual life; Kawai's lectures on Zen Buddhism and visits to the temples and shrines of Kyoto had a profound influence on Munakata.


There will be several katazome stencil dyed print by Serizawa Keisuke (1895-1984), a textile artist and painter. In another example of the artists discourse: one of the prints illustrates two incense containers made by Hamada. The show will also include ceramics by Hamada and Kawai.

The exhibition opens Thursday, March 15 and continues through Monday, March 26th. For the duration of the exhibition the gallery will have general open hours Monday — Saturday, 12 to 5pm.

view the online exhibition Munakata & His Circle (Highlights)


Scholten Japanese Art is open Monday - Friday, and some Saturdays by appointment only

Contact Katherine Martin at
(212) 585-0474 or email
to schedule a visit between 11am and 4pm preferably for no more than two individuals at a time.
Visitors are asked to wear face masks and practice social distancing at their discretion.

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September 22, 2022

Scholten Japanese Art
145 West 58th Street, suite 6D
New York, New York 10019
ph: (212) 585-0474
fx: (212) 585-0475