Asian Art News
By Lucy Birmingham
"Learning Dreaming — Toko Shinoda"
One of Japan's most celebrated and unique painters, with a career spanning six decades, Toko Shinoda, 92, is a force of strength and style. Among her well-known contemporaries, such as Masanari Murai (1906-1999), Kumi Sugai (1919-1996), Kenzo Okada (1902-1982), and Matazo Kayama (1927-2004) she has remained distinct and apart; the only woman among them. But more than gender and patriarchal challenges, it has been her distinctive style that has separated her from the pack — abstract, bold brushstrokes of sumi-e ink on Japanese washi paper flecked with gold, silver, platinum or subtle lines of color.
Shinoda successfully blended modern Western abstraction with Japanese aesthetics, like her contemporaries. But with the exception of Kayama, they are known largely for their Western-style oils on canvas.
Unlike many artists with distinguished careers, she has refused almost every award offered her. She says she doesn't like the connotations attached to awards. Her international dealer, Norman Tolman of Tolman Gallery, says it's possible she would even refuse Japan's most prestigious award, Living National Treasure (Ningen Kokuhou). But her strict stance has actually gained her admiration and added to her fame.
Like many of her colleagues, Shinoda first found fame abroad but with a unique twist — through architects. Kenzo Tange was one of her first major clients. Her 1954 large-scale mural, painted for Tange's Japanese government pavilion design in Sao Paulo, Brazil was particularly important.
At that time, her new international recognition was boosted by her calligraphy work in an exhibition on Japanese architects that toured the U.S. The exhibition began at the Museum of Modern Art in 1953.
Since that time, she has worked with well-known architects including Isamu Kenmochi, Isoya Yoshida and Kishi Kurokawa. Notable commissions have included a mural for the Kyoto International Conference Hall, another for the Japanese Ambassador’s residence in Washington, D.C., a 28-meter (100-foot) long mural for Zojoji Temple in Tokyo, and most recently a vast painting for the lobby of the Conrad Hotel in Tokyo.
During Shinoda's time in New York City between 1956-1958 the abstract expressionist movement was in its infancy. The bold, large-scale paintings by artists such as Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell were gaining recognition, and greatly influenced her.
Beyond her powerful, abstract, sumi paintings, Shinoda made quite a splash in New York's art world with her petite stature and exotic kimonos.
Although Shinoda prefers not to be considered as a print artist, her vast repertoire of reasonably priced lithographs have also contributed to her fame and accessibility to a wide scale of collectors. Her work is well suited to lithography. She is able to brush directly onto the plate as she would onto washi paper unencumbered by a chisel, acid or silkscreen. In addition, she individualizes her prints with colors added by hand. Blue-grays, soft greens and bold vermillion reds often accent her prints. And like the painters of her generation, Shinoda's work remains distinct from the work of famed print artists like Masuo Ikeda (1934-1997), Shiko Munakata (1903-1975), Kiyoshi Saito (1907-1997) and Hiratsuka Un'ichi (1895-1997).
Also contributing to Shinoda's success has been her excellent gallery representation. She has been careful to select a very limited number of galleries worldwide who handle her work directly. This strategy, whether conscious or not, has prevented over-commercialization and a market flood of her work. This sense of exclusivity is an appealing factor for her collectors, both private and public, and does influence price.
She is also a prolific and well-known writer. In Japan her writing is admired as greatly as her artwork. Among her many published writings is a collection of her essays titled “Sumi-iro” (The Color of Sumi) in which she describes her near mystical fascination for sumi. For this she won the prestigious Japanese Essayist Club Prize in 1979.
Shinoda's deeply independent nature — her core willful strength — is the basis of her unique personality. Unlike most artists of her stature, she has never joined an art society or organization and has never formally studied with anyone. Her only mentor remains her father, who taught her calligraphy and an appreciation for Chinese classics. She has never married, taken on a student or hired an assistant.
It is through calligraphy that her rebellious and creative nature was first truly revealed and it is the source of her lifetime love of sumi and the written word. “During calligraphy classes in my primary school days,” she writes, “teacher used to correct my characters with vermillion ink. It sometimes overlapped and sometimes swerved sharply from what I had written. Not a model student, I often rebelled against the intruding red.” All Japanese learn calligraphy at a young age through constant repetition of the characters with a specific standardized stroke order. Shinoda admits that she found this repetitive approach tedious and limiting and decided to develop her own style incorporating her own stroke order. She says that this has allowed her a fresh spontaneity. "I just didn't want to conform to anything," she will say with open honesty.
In Shinoda's atelier, it is on a very large, heavy and priceless Song Dynasty inkstone that she grinds her sticks of black sumi ink. Shinoda has said that she feels all the nuances of blacks and grays can be expressed infinitely in this transient material made from the charcoal soot of burnt pinewood. "In sumi painting, the color can never be determined exactly because it changes with the amount of water added, the temperature of the day, the humidity. This is its natural and essential charm," Shinoda has said. Sometimes the sumi ink will bleed into the paper or feather out unexpectedly. The capricious unpredictability of sumi requires both highly disciplined control and the willingness to let go and flow with the natural breath of the work. It is not an easy process and requires careful planning and enormous strength and concentration. The work is a true reflection of her persona at the moment of its creation. "The color of today's sumi is the color of my life today," she has written. And although her work can appear simple, it is this simplicity which beguiles the senses and reveals her mastery of this medium.
The blacks and grays of her sumi strokes are often accompanied by a striking vermillion red. This color is usually ground from one of her 500-year-old Ming Dynasty cinnabar sticks of which she has an impressive collection.
Those schooled in calligraphy can recognize the precise movement of Shinoda's brush — the center stroke, the pulling stroke, the point stroke, the side stroke. For her large pieces she uses a brush as big as a broomstick. How could such an elderly, small woman control such an enormous brush all by herself? "Well, could you see a sumo wrestler doing that?" she replies sharply. "Size doesn't matter." Like a highly trained dancer, she creates with total muscular coordination and concentrated energy. "I'll get covered with sumi up to here," she'll say and point the length of her arms. For Shinoda, her work is an all-consuming physical, mental and spiritual process.
Although many of her works contain passages and poetry from Chinese and Japanese literature, she came to realize from her foreign audience that it wasn't necessary to be able to read or understand the meaning of the Chinese characters or Japanese kana syllabary to feel moved by her work. Although many cannot read her calligraphy they can respond. The shapes can be read as abstract forms delving from Shinoda’s own creative emotion — a kind of international language and a truly artistic creation. With this, Shinoda offers the viewer their very own interpretation. "It's not important for there to be a meaning to my work," she says. "Viewers can find what they want to see."
"So many different people like her work," says Allison Tolman of the Tolman Collection, one of Shinoda's long-time Tokyo-based art dealers. "Its not angst producing. People find it soothing. Even the ones that have a lot of energy, they're not going to upset you." Tolman adds that, "eventhough I've been seeing her work since I was a child, I never tire of it."
Shinoda has exhibited widely, both in Japan and abroad, and her paintings and lithograph prints are collected by many worldwide. Clients of the Tolman Gallery have told them that even in their Western-style European homes their Shinoda paintings look beautiful. Her works reside in numerous permanent collections including the Guggenheim Museum, MoMA, Fogg Art Museum, British Museum, Cincinnati Art Museum, Hague Museum, Haifa Art Museum, Art Institute of Chicago, Tokyo National Museum of Modern Art, Singapore National Museum, Museum fur Ostasiatische Kunst, Yale University Art Gallery and the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations. Her paintings even adorn the halls of the new Imperial Palace residence signifying her as a favorite with the Imperial family. In a rare show of admiration, The Empress of Japan has attended two of Shinoda's exhibitions, one at the Hara Museum in 2003 and most recently in 2005 at the Shinsei Bank in Tokyo.
Shinoda's work comfortably transcends political issues. Her respective at the Singapore Museum in 1996 was the first for a Japanese artist despite historical tensions between the two countries. "Eventhough the historical relationship between Japan and Singapore has not been good, everyone loved her work," explains Tolman.
How and where does she find her inspiration? "Certain forms float up in my mind's eye — aromas, a blowing breeze, a rain-drenched gust of wind. I try to capture these vague evanescent images and put them into a vivid form," she has said. It is perhaps Mt. Fuji that has been her greatest source of inspiration throughout her life. She owns a farmhouse on Lake Yamanaka, at the foot of Mt. Fuji where she goes to rejuvenate and soak in the majestic views. She has said that she admires Mt. Fuji because, " there's only one Fuji in the world and it stands there splendidly alone, simple, elegant, unrivalled…" A clear metaphor for Shinoda herself. "Sometimes when I see Mt Fuji in winter, pristine with snow and reaching to the heavens, I am filled with a desire to brush a huge, solitary stroke across it." Shinoda feels an artist must have not only inspiration but also confidence in their opinions. "An artist cannot be born unless they have their own opinion," she says. "If you do not have confidence in your choices, your own likes and dislikes, you cannot be an artist," she emphasizes.
Her age at 92, is no secret. In fact she is more akin to ageless. Those closest to her, like the Tolmans, cite many factors which have contributed to her longevity: her spontaneity, her daily walks, her good appetite, her iron will, her competitive spirit, her awesome memory, her interest in world affairs, her sense of humor. "I told a friend that after I die I'm worried about meeting my mother in heaven," recalls Shinoda with a smile. "What should I say to her? My friend then says to me: Don't worry, you will not be going to heaven," she adds with a big laugh.
Shinoda's hands in particular are captivating. "You know there's that saying that you can tell a woman's age by her hands," says Allison Tolman. "But in Toko's case it's impossible to tell because her hands are so young looking." Shinoda has long fingers and very strong hands developed from her work. Yet her hand gestures, unusual among Japanese, are graceful and vividly express her youthful nature. It is as if even in conversation she holds a brush to paint the moment of her thoughts.
"Toko told me that the secret of her longevity is that there is so much she wants to create," explains Allison Tolman. "Whatever piece she is working on now, she is always thinking about the next one. A lot of great artists have lived to be really old. Many live long because of their creative spirit, because there's so much they want to create. The creative spirit feeds on itself. It is very inspiring to hear this, not only for artists but for people who love art."
How does a nonagenarian who has spent their life breaking the molds of age, womanhood and nationality continue onward with energy and spirit and creativity? "I am a student of life," explains Shinoda. "I am always learning. I am always dreaming."