The earliest surviving prints date back to the 8th century; these were sacred texts that were placed within small wooden pagodas. Japanese printmakers continued to develop related imagery even after developing commercial forms of their work in the 17th century. Over the past 100 years, artists’ prints have become a significant way for individuals to express their beliefs by depicting Buddha, bodhisattvas, and other deities of the Buddhist pantheon. Such creations have often served as acts of personal devotion in response to dramatic or rapid social change, especially after World War II.
Munakata Shikō was foremost among 20th-century artists who drew upon Buddhist iconography for his subjects. Among this exhibition’s 25 prints are his two landmark series from the 1930s, Kegon-fu (1937) and Two Bodhisattvas and Ten Great Disciples of Buddha Sakyamuni (designed in 1939). In the latter, he rendered each large figure with thick black lines and an evocative gesture or expression. The series struck a chord globally, receiving prestigious awards at international biennials and becoming an iconic work of 20th-century printmaking.
Some of his contemporaries made more understated reference to their spirituality—for instance, Hiratsuka Un’ichi recorded Buddhist monuments and sculptures in Japan and the United States. Munakata and Hiratsuka were both artists of the sōsaku hanga (creative print) movement, which foregrounded individual expression and created a pathway for printmakers who continue to explore their spirituality through the medium.
Munakata Shikō and Buddhism in 20th-Century Japanese Prints is curated by Janice Katz, Roger L. Weston Associate Curator of Japanese Art, the Art Institute of Chicago.