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Made in Japan

So the Philadelphia Museum of Art has a solo exhibition of this guy — a major retrospective, actually — who favors Walt Whitman, Beethoven and Van Gogh; learned lithography in Philadelphia; pushed the limits of technology in his traditional field and expresses much sexuality in his work.

Sound like a modern Philly guy? Hold on.

The museum is presenting a pioneering retrospective celebrating the centennial of Munakata Shiko, considered by many as the 20th century’s most influential artist of the woodblock print. He was a Japanese artist born in 1903.

As much as the museum’s exhibition schedule over the past decade has absolutely delighted with such wonders as the Van Gogh portraits, C�zanne, Eakins, Goya and the crafts of early Pennsylvania, the museum has maintained a strong schedule of Asian arts and, in the process, developed new audiences.

According to museum notes, Munakata is "credited with revolutionizing the woodcut, or hanga, in Japan. He liberated it from the small scale ukiyo-e format typified by such woodcut masters as Hokusai (1760-1849) and Hiroshige (1797-1858), and employed it to create folding screens and wall murals."

The retrospective will include more than 100 works — 70 of them will be on display throughout the run of the show until Nov. 10, while another group of 30 or so will rotate due to its sensitivity to light. The show includes not only woodcuts, but also paintings, calligraphy and ceramics. Philadelphia was one of the first American cities to show Munakata’s work and this exhibition, "Munakata Shiko: Japanese Master of the Modern Print," is the first comprehensive retrospective to be shown outside his native country.

Much detail about Munakata and his work is provided in a definitive catalog printed in both English and Japanese by the Munakata Museum in Kamakura, Japan, that was founded in the artist’s residence and studio after his death in 1975. He was born in Aomori and was a self-taught artist who left his father’s blacksmithing shop when he was 21 for the big city — Tokyo — to pursue art.

His signature work is described as "integrating intaglio with relief carving, and the application of colors to the back of prints on thin paper through which they glow softly." He felt his traditional work was the equal of Western oil painting and he engaged in huge projects such as Two Bodhisattva and Ten Great Disciples of Sakyamuni that took him more than a decade to complete.

During the ’50s, he came to the notice of the American audience with shows of his woodcuts in New York and Philadelphia. The artist also won a number of highly prestigious awards, including the Sao Paulo Biennale and the Venice Biennale. Time and Life magazines heralded his trip in the late 1950s, and he was hosted by the Rockefeller-financed Japan Society.

During a one-week visit to Philadelphia in 1959 that museum director Anne d’Harnoncourt described as "astonishingly productive," Munakata worked with printmaker and lithographer Arthur Flory, learned lithography and created a series of Buddhist figures, owls, a calligraphy and a scene of a large apple tree outside Flory’s studio. During this time period, Munakata also visited Walt Whitman’s home and included in one of his pieces Western writing of Whitman’s phrase:

"Perfection

Only themselves

Understand themselves and the like of

Themselves

As souls only understand souls."

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The exhibition also includes a summary of Munakata’s primary interests — an inventory that every man wants to make. In this work, Munakata includes joy and sexuality, India, Japan and his hometown, as well as Van Gogh and Beethoven.

The show and the catalog are a combined effort and in Philadelphia, Dr. Felice Fischer, curator of Japanese and East Asian Art, was the prime mover. Her essay in the catalog alone is worth the price of admission and her words provide a fitting summary of Munakata: "Munakata’s work communicates a deep sense of joy and vitality while cutting across numerous Eastern and Western pictorial traditions. He was a modern artist who found continuity with Japanese art of the past. He believed that the Japanese woodcut print was the equal of Western painting and invested in it a new energy and scale."

Not even the patronizing press in New York with its description of Munakata as "the wild man of Japanese hanga artists" and "the spry gentleman from Japan whose woodcuts are prized around the world for their fanciful, boisterous images" could belittle the marvelous achievements of the Aomori blacksmith’s son.

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