When Vincent Van Gogh looked for sources of inspiration, he turned East and joined in the Japonisme craze that captured the imagination of many European artists in the late nineteenth century. In 1921, Japanese artist Shiko Munakata reversed the line of influence when he saw Van Gogh’s art and tried to incorporate it into his woodcuts. Despite emulating Van Gogh’s frenetic draftsmanship, Munakata always maintained a sense of the Zen Buddhism he so deeply believed in, primarily through depictions of Buddha as in Gautama and Bodhisattvas (above, from 1958). Buddha, whose family name was Gautama, sits with the Bodhisattvas or spiritual beings who linger on earth to help others reach enlightenment. Born September 5, 1903, Munakata enlightened viewers with his revitalization of the ancient Japanese woodcut through infusions of Western art ideas. “I make black and white prints because I want to go back to the beginning,” Munakata once said, humbly downplaying the sophistication behind his simple, black and white designs.
Munakata brought a unique vision to the woodcut. In works such as Fugen (Samantabhadra Riding on an Elephant) (above, from 1950), Munakata colored the image on the front of the thin translucent paper by painting watercolor to the back of the sheet, which bled through to the front. It’s interesting to see how Munakata’s adaptation of Van Gogh in his woodcuts diverges from the German Expressionists’ adaptation of Van Gogh’s art. Whereas German artists such as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, and Emil Nolde emphasized Van Gogh’s angst, Munakata instead, perhaps thanks to his Zen Buddhism, saw Van Gogh’s more joyous embrace of nature’s harmony. The vibrancy of a Van Gogh landscape spoke to Munakata, who adapted that energy to the Buddhist belief in the unity of all being as embodied in mythic figures such as Samantabhadra riding an elephant. Munakata carved with great speed, working on the woodblock with no preparatory drawings and allowing the spirit of the work to guide his hand. Never losing faith in the process itself, Munakata accepted accidents and errors graciously as the price for “riding the elephant” he called art. For him, each painting stood as just another manifestation of the greater scheme of nature and beyond human judgment.
Munakata carved series of woodcuts based not only on disciples of Buddha, but also created a calendar of the months featuring different flowers and natural features. The print for February showing an Orchid (Nigatsu—Ranjo no saku) (above, from 1956) shows just how inventive Munakata could be with a basic black framework into which he introduces passionate color. Van Gogh’s flower studies formed the earliest influence on Munakata, and still influenced him in this image more than 30 years later. The accessibility of Munakata’s prints made him a popular figure in Japan and helped him rise to the status of a national treasure. Cursed with poor eyesight, Munakata often carved his woodcuts with his face inches away from the wood, his Mr. Magoo glasses nearly touching the surface. Like Van Gogh, Munakata’s simple ways often earned him the label of primitive or worse, but also allowed him to strip his art to its barest essence and rebuild it in his own unique vision.