The Paul Schuster Art Gallery is displaying now a good cross section of the woodcuts of Shiko Munakata, preeminent among modern Japanese printmakers. From this show, it is plain that Munakata has much in common with Western graphic artists, especially the Expressionists Nolde and Heckel. At the same time, Munakata does not deny his Oriental heritage; the masterful balance of simple forms, a famous feature of old Japanese prints, can be found in almost every work of this exhibit.
Munakata's themes derive from conventional Japanese subjects-religious figures, folk tales and landscapes. Certainly the most impressive are the big prints of four of the Buddha's disciples. Here, Munakata's simple and strident forms recall Indian and Japanese Buddhist paintings, while suggesting the forcefulness of the best of the German Expressionists. Though the prints may lack the mystical introspection of earlier Oriental religious works, their clarity and technical control show how adept and proficient a master Munakata is.
Munakata does not always maintain the virtuoso standards of this religious series. Lapses occur when he adds colored ink to the black and white woodcut. Munakata, it seems, is not in any way as gifted a colorist as he is a draftsman. His heavy, almost garish, coloring emphasizes how far he has turned from the nice distinctions of tone and shade in eighteenth and nineteenth century Japanese prints. This very simple style, more Western than Oriental, mainly produces naive results; the childish, pseudo-folk art atmosphere of Stones in Water and Hawk Woman is most disturbing. However, the best color print, Nirvana, is so excellent that one is sorely tempted to modify one's attack on Munakata's color schemes. Here, in this haunting, mystical picture, color plays a positive and entirely thought-out psychological role.
Many of the black and white prints are genre studies, impishly comic or decorative, such as the delightful Autumn. This sort of divertissment is amusing and impresses the viewer with its formal cohesion. These qualities, Occidental aspects of Munakata's art, are almost entirely missing from Visiting in Evening, the simplest, most "Japanese" print of the exhibit. With its understatement and perfect balancing, the print testifies to Munakata's complete mastery of the conventional techniques of his country's art.
Still, it is in his desire to reassert in individual terms vitality of the tradition that has underlaid Japan's artistic achievements in the past that Munakata experiments so extensively with Occidental styles. In this devilishly difficult task, he has succeeded; his art, at its best, is entirely personal and modern, yet also perfectly Japanese.